Here is just one bit from a superb post on the FDA by psychiatrist Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten.
I worry that people are going to come away from this with some conclusion like “wow, the FDA seemed really unprepared to handle COVID.” No. It’s not that specific. Every single thing the FDA does is like this. Every single hour of every single day the FDA does things exactly this stupid and destructive, and the only reason you never hear about the others is because they’re about some disease with a name like Schmoe’s Syndrome and a few hundred cases nationwide instead of something big and media-worthy like coronavirus. I am a doctor and sometimes I have to deal with the Schmoe’s Syndromes of the world and every [email protected]$king time there is some story about the FDA doing something exactly this awful and counterproductive.
A while back I learned about Infant Short Bowel Syndrome, a rare condition with only a few hundred cases nationwide. Babies cannot digest food effectively, but you can save their lives by using an IV line to direct nutrients directly into their veins. But you need to use the right nutrient fluid. The FDA approved an early draft of the nutrient fluid, but it didn’t have enough fish oil, which is necessary for development, so a lot of the babies still died or ended up with permanent neurological damage. Around the late 90s/early 00s, researchers figured out what was going on and recommended adding fish oil to the IV fluid. The FDA responded that they had only approved the non-fish-oil version, it would take them a while to approve the new version, and until they did that adding fish oil was illegal. A bunch of babies kept dying and getting permanent neurological damage, and everyone knew exactly how to stop it, but if anyone did the FDA would take away their licenses and shut them down. Around 2010, Boston Children’s Hospital found some loophole that let them add fish oil to their nutrient fluid on site, and infants with short bowel syndrome at that one hospital stopped dying or ending up permanently disabled, and the FDA grudgingly agreed to permit it but banned them from distributing their formulation or letting it cross state lines – so for a while if you wanted your baby not to die you had to have them spend their infancy in one specific hospital in Massachusetts. Around 2015 the FDA said that if your doctor applied for a special exemption, they would let you import the correct nutritional fluid from Europe (where, lacking the FDA, they had just added fish oil to the fluid as soon as researchers discovered it was necessary), but you were only able to apply after your baby had already sustained serious damage, and the FDA might just say no. Finally in 2018 the FDA got around to approving the corrected nutritional fluid and now babies with short bowel syndrome do fine, after twenty years of easily preventable state-mandated deaths. And it’s not just this and coronavirus, I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW TYPICAL THIS IS OF EVERYTHING THE FDA DOES ALL THE TIME.
Read the whole thing! I actually had to read it in several sessions, it’s not that long but bouts of anger interspersed with moments of laughter made me have to put it down momentarily to recover. There is a lot more in the post on reforms.
Addendum: Scott updates the infant fish oil story and provides much more detail. He got some things wrong and the FDA as an agency ends up looking better but the broad outline about the FDA system looks right. I am leaving the post up for posterity but this specific part isn’t correct.