European Medicines Agency (EMA) — the European drug regulator — “is opening its data vaults to systematic scrutiny in a move that will let independent researchers trawl through millions of pages of clinical trial information,” according to Reuters news (here).

This is big news depending on how EMA makes these large data sets available to outside investigators and which investigators are granted access. Reuters reports that the agency will host a conference in November to determine who has access to what and how fast. As I always said of the FDA, if an agency wants to delay something, its best bet is to hold a meeting to discuss it or sponsor research to study it.

The drug industry has long argued that the clinical data it presents to the FDA and other regulators as part of the drug approval process is proprietary — ie, closely guarded trade secrets. But critics contend that important safety data about drugs is hidden from outside investigators and the data is critical for maintaining public health.

“It will make a huge difference to public health,” said Peter Gotzsche, director of the nonprofit Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark, which carries out systematic healthcare reviews. “The pharmaceutical industry routinely exaggerates the benefits of its drugs and plays down the harms or hides them. By getting access to material held by drug regulators we may discover that many drugs are less effective than we thought they were and also more harmful.”

In 2011, Gotzsche wrote paper titled “Why we need easy access to all data from all clinical trials and how to accomplish it.” In it, he said “Calls for data sharing have mostly been restricted to publicly-funded research, but I argue that the distinction between publicly-funded and industry-funded research is an artificial and irrelevant one, as the interests of the patients must override commercial interests” (find the full text here: “Call for Easy Access to ALL Clinical Trial Data“).

A case in point is Vioxx, whose harmful side effects once were secrets known only to Merck and the FDA.

“Europe used to be behind the FDA in terms of openness and transparency but now Europe is ahead,” Gotzsche said. Will the FDA ever follow EMA’s lead?

I doubt it. FDA has been very gun shy of the pharmaceutical industry, which pays over 60% of the agency’s budget for approving drugs. Also, the drug industry has no qualms about taking the FDA to court to defend itself. Usually, the FDA is sued by pharma for limiting the industry’s First Amendment right to free and open speech. In this case, however, the industry would argue that FDA has no right itself to “speak” freely about clinical data provided to it by drug companies.

UPDATE (7/16/2012): While the EU plans to provide access to “confidential” clinical trial data, the FDA is prohibited by LAW to do so. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FDA is monitoring some of its own employees who are suspected of leaking confidential medical device data to the press (read about this here).