On July 12, The Washington Post ran a fascinating interview with Mark Thornton, Senior Vice President, Product Development, and Chief Medical Officer at Novavax. Inspiringly, the story was headlined “A career built on bringing livesaving drugs to the market and to patients.” And, for the most part, Thornton’s career is every bit as admirable as the headline makes it sound.
It is wonderful story, although at 400 words it is told much too briefly. Still, it is a celebration of commercial producers, something that I would like to see much more of in our newspapers.
But there is one distrubing paragraph in the middle of Thornton’s account: “Eventually,” he says, “I became intrigued by the Food and Drug Administration and its power to make decisions on medicines. It’s one thing to be writing the book, but the FDA gets to be the book critic, so to speak.”
Now, think about that statement. If you were Sir Walter Scott or Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens, you might occasionally take pen in hand to write some magazine criticism of another novelist. But would you ever say, unironically, with the tone of someone who was rising to the greatest heights of his profession: “It’s one thing to be writing a novel, but as a journalist I get to be the book critic”? Surely, it is obvious who is the star and who is the supernumerary. “It is impossible to think of a man of any actual force and originality,” said H.L. Mencken, “who spent his whole life appraising and describing the work of other men.” The same may be said of the pharmaceutical creator and the pharmaceutical evaluator.
Fortunately, for his sake and for ours, Mark Thornton has not chosen to spend his whole life appraising the work of other men.
Still, his metaphor about the novelist and the critic is so completely absurd that it is worth pondering. What would it mean if the inventor of a drug were like an author and the FDA were like a critic? Well, it would presumably mean that the FDA’s job would be to analyse drugs and medical devices and then to publish reports saying what it believed to be the safety of this medical device or the effectiveness of that drug. Yes, if that was what the FDA did, then it would be comprable to a literary critic. It would serve a useful function, certainly, but it would not be a specifically governmental function. Anyone could do it.
And that is the real meaning behind Thornton’s enthusiasm for joining the FDA. The FDA must be a governmental bureau precisely because the FDA is not content to be a “critic.” It insists on being a censor. It claims the power not merely to criticize the books that it believes are unsettling or unhelpful—but to ban them, and then to track down and punish any person or patient found trafficking in them. Which is something only a government can do.
In this light, Mark Thornton’s enthusiasm for joining the FDA can be easily understood, although I cannot say it speaks well of him. When Thornton said of joining the FDA “It’s one thing to be writing the book, but the FDA gets to be the book critic,” what he meant was this: “It is one thing to be writing the book, but as the FDA censor I get to say whether the book is read.” From that perspective, one can well imagine that an FDA “critic” sees himself as a higher and more worthy being than an author.
For what, after all, are authors? They are scribblers motivated by a desire for money or fame---seeking their cheap ends by any means open to them, whether or not they serve the good of the public’s mind and soul. Ah, but as as censor, one is above such low motives and concerned only with the public’s well-being.
Call it the joys of fatwa. Or in this case, the joys of FaDwA