WASHINGTON—For most of its history, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved new prescription medicines at a grudging pace, paying daily homage to the physician's creed, "First, do no harm."
Then in the early 1990s, the demand for AIDS drugs changed the political climate. Congress told the FDA to work closely with pharmaceutical firms in getting new medicines to market more swiftly. President Clinton urged FDA leaders to trust industry as "partners, not adversaries."
Seven drugs approved since 1993 have been withdrawn after reports of deaths and severe side effects. A two-year Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the FDA approved each of those drugs while disregarding danger signs or blunt warnings from its own specialists. Then, after receiving reports of significant harm to patients, the agency was slow to seek withdrawals.
According to "adverse-event" reports filed with the FDA, the seven drugs were cited as suspects in 1,002 deaths. Because the deaths are reported by doctors, hospitals and others on a voluntary basis, the true number of fatalities could be far higher, according to epidemiologists.
An adverse-event report does not prove that a drug caused a death; other factors, such as preexisting disease, could play a role. But the reports are regarded by public health officials as the most reliable early warnings of danger.
The FDA's performance was tracked through an examination of thousands of pages of government documents, other data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with more than 60 present and former agency officials.
The seven drugs were not needed to save lives. One was for heartburn. Another was a diet pill. A third was a painkiller. All told, six of the medicines were never proved to offer lifesaving benefits, and the seventh, an antibiotic, was ultimately judged unnecessary because other, safer antibiotics were available.
The seven are among hundreds of new drugs approved since 1993, a period during which the FDA has become known more for its speed than its caution. In 1988, only 4% of new drugs introduced into the world market were approved first by the FDA. In 1998, the FDA's first-in-the-world approvals spiked to 66%. The drug companies' batting average in getting new drugs approved also climbed. By the end of the 1990s, the FDA was approving more than 80% of the industry's applications for new products, compared with about 60% at the beginning of the decade.
And the companies have prospered: The seven unsuccessful drugs alone generated U.S. sales exceeding $5 billion before they were withdrawn.
Once the world's unrivaled safety leader, the FDA was the last to withdraw several new drugs in the late 1990s that were banned by health authorities in Europe.
"This track record is totally unacceptable," said Dr. Curt D. Furberg, a professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest University. "The patients are the ones paying the price. They're the ones developing all the side effects, fatal and non-fatal. Someone has to speak up for them."
The FDA's faster and more lenient approach helped supply pharmacy shelves with scores of new remedies. But it has also yielded these fatal missteps, according to the documents and interviews:
* Only 10 months ago, FDA administrators dismissed one of its medical officer's emphatic warnings and approved Lotronex, a drug for treating irritable bowel syndrome. Lotronex has been linked to five deaths, the removal of a patient's colon and other bowel surgeries. It was pulled off the market on Nov. 28.
* The diet pill Redux, approved in April 1996 despite an advisory committee's vote against it, was withdrawn in September 1997 after heart-valve damage was detected in patients put on the drug. The FDA later received reports identifying Redux as a suspect in 123 deaths.
* The antibiotic Raxar was approved in November 1997 in the face of evidence that it may have caused several fatal heart-rhythm disruptions in clinical studies. FDA officials chose to exclude any mention of the deaths from the drug's label. The maker of the pill withdrew it in October 1999. Raxar was cited as a suspect in the deaths of 13 patients.
* The blood pressure medication Posicor was approved in June 1997 despite findings by FDA specialists that it might fatally disrupt heart rhythm and interact with certain other drugs, posing potentially severe risk. Posicor was withdrawn one year later; reports cited it as a suspect in 100 deaths.
* The painkiller Duract was approved in July 1997 after FDA medical officers warned repeatedly of the drug's liver toxicity. Senior officials sided with the manufacturer in softening the label's warning of the liver threat. The drug was withdrawn 11 months later. By late 1998, the FDA had received voluntary reports citing Duract as a suspect in 68 deaths, including 17 that involved liver failure.
* The diabetes drug Rezulin was approved in January 1997 over a medical officer's detailed opposition and was withdrawn this March after the agency had linked 91 liver failures to the pill. Reports cite Rezulin as a suspect in 391 deaths.