May 20, 2020
By Mark Flatten

If any good comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that it forces policy makers to rethink some of their arcane rules that have stifled medical innovation, drug development, and the ability to provide healthcare where and when it is needed.

Most of these laws, rules, and regulations were passed with good intentions. Over the years, deeper and deeper layers of bureaucratic red tape were added but went largely unnoticed by the public. It’s now reached the point that it takes well over a decade and costs in excess of $1 billion to get a new drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

But the COVID-19 crisis has turned the flaws and inefficiencies that go unnoticed in normal times into a stark life-and-death reality.

We don’t have 10 to 15 years to develop a treatment or vaccine to COVID-19.

We don’t have the luxury of dismissively shrugging off medical innovations or treatments that may be discovered in other developed countries.

We know that someone who is sick with something other than COVID-19 is taking an unnecessary risk of infection if they are forced into a crowded doctor’s office for a face-to-face diagnosis.

A crisis has a way of highlighting policies that make little or no sense in normal times but otherwise go unnoticed because there is a lack of urgency.

The Washington Examiner takes this up in an editorial published Tuesday, which argues policies and red tape that are being scrapped as unworkable in the COVID crisis really make little sense to begin with.

“The fact that we and our healthcare system can survive and thrive without these regulations is telling and suggests the red tape should not be restored after the coronavirus is defeated,” the Examiner’s editorial boardnotes. “While loosening regulations prompts some fears, the coronavirus is proving that inflexible and sclerotic regulations kill people rather than save them. Our current, dire experiment will help inform policymakers about which regulations to abolish in the near future. We hope that many of the sensible steps that have been taken will remain in effect long after the coronavirus has passed.”

The Examiner singled out several federal policies that had to be scrapped, bypassed, or modified to deal with COVID-19. Many of the policy reforms it advocates have long been championed by the Goldwater Institute. Aside from overhauling the FDA drug-approval process, these policies include the use of telemedicine as a substitute for face-to-face doctor visits, and expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Some other Goldwater-backed reforms were not mentioned. One is called Free Speech in Medicine, which protects doctors and drug companies that share truthful information about the off-label uses of FDA-approved medications. Numerous studies are underway to determine whether certain drugs already on the market might prove effective in treating COVID-19. Most notable is chloroquine and an offshoot, hydroxychloroquine, developed before World War II to treat malaria, that has shown some positive results either alone or in combination with a common antibiotic and zinc. President Trump announced this week he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a way to prevent contracting COVID-19. While it is still being studied in clinical trials, and thus far has delivered mixed results, recent surveys show about two-thirds of U.S. physicians say they would prescribe hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 in a family member.

There are currently no FDA-approved treatments or vaccines for the virus.

On a related note, the Examiner also published a column by Tim Worstall, a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, describing other ways the FDA bureaucracy and red tape are still stifling the response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S. Worstall focuses on federal regulatory interference that has restricted the availability of testing. Of federal bureaucrats, he laments, “They’re trying to control the COVID-19 pandemic by diktats and edicts from the center. This is not a sensible manner of ruling 330 million people.”

Mark Flatten is the National Investigative Journalist at the Goldwater Institute.

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