To this day, the agency refuses to disclose the names of the drugs it is reassessing, on the grounds that doing so would expose "confidential commercial information." ProPublica managed to identify five drugs that used Cetero tests to help win FDA approval.
FDA officials defended the agency's handling of the Cetero case as prudent and scientifically sound, noting that the agency has found no discrepancies between any original drug and its generic copy and no sign that any patients have been harmed.
"It is non-trivial to have to redo all this, to withdraw drugs, to alarm the public and the providers for a large range of drugs," said Janet Woodcock, the director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "There are consequences. To repeat the studies requires human experimentation, and that is not totally without risk."
Woodcock added that an agency risk assessment found the potential for harm from drugs tested by Cetero to be "quite low,'' an assessment she said has been "confirmed" by the fact that no problems have been found in the drugs the agency has finished reviewing.
She declined to release the risk assessment or detail its design. A subsequent statement from the agency described the assessment as "fluid" and "ongoing." The FDA also has not released its 21 completed reviews, which ProPublica has requested.
Some experts say that by withholding so much information in the Cetero case the FDA failed to meet its obligations to the public.
"If there are problems with the scientific studies, as there have been in this case, then the FDA's review of those problems needs to be transparent," said David Kessler, who headed the FDA from 1990 to 1997 and who is now a professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Putting its reviews in public view would let the medical community "understand the basis for the agency's actions," he said. "FDA may be right here, but if it wants public confidence, they should be transparent. Otherwise it's just a black box."
Another former senior FDA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also felt the FDA had moved too slowly and secretively. "They're keeping it all in the dark. It's not transparent at all," he said.
By contrast, the European Medicines Agency has provided a public accounting of the science behind all the drugs it has reviewed. Its policy, the EMA said in response to questions, is to make public "all review procedures where the benefit-risk balance of a medicine is under scrutiny."
Woodcock dismissed comparisons to the EMA. "Europe had a smaller handful of drugs," she said, "and they may not have engaged in as extensive negotiation and investigations with the company as we did."
She said the FDA would have disclosed more, including the names of drugs, had it believed there was a risk to public health. "We believe that this did not rise to the level where the public should be notified," she said. "We felt it would result in misunderstanding and inappropriate actions."
In a written response to Kessler's comments, the FDA said, "We've been as transparent as possible given the legal protections surrounding an FDA investigation of this or any type. The issue is not a lack of transparency but rather the difficulty of explaining why the problems we identified at Cetero, which on their face would appear to be highly significant in terms of patient risk, fortunately were not."
Still, the FDA's secrecy has had other ramifications. Some of Cetero's suspect research made its way unchallenged into the peer-reviewed scientific literature on which the medical community relies. In one case, a researcher and a journal editor told ProPublica they had no idea the Cetero tests had been called into doubt.