At a conference sponsored by the Parenteral Drug Association on January 27, speakers demonstrated that:
- Industry has developed best practices for auditors or regulatory inspectors to conduct virtual inspections of drug-manufacturing facilities (virtual inspections are those in which the auditor or inspector is not physically on-site, but, instead, conducts the inspection remotely through audio or video streaming techniques, or both).
- Advanced technology is available and is easily controlled by remote auditors in such a fashion as to replicate the physical presence on-site of an inspector or even a team of inspectors.
- Sponsors of approved applications for drugs regularly conduct virtual audits of their Contract Manufacturing Organizations (CMOs).
- Other drug-manufacturing regulatory agencies worldwide routinely conduct virtual inspections, and have done so since COVID-19 began to shut down travel of inspectors.
As we have previously reported (here, here, and here) and as my colleague Mark Schwartz wrote in a Bloomberg article, numerous FDA approvals of critically needed drugs are being blocked because FDA is insisting that the approvals must await in-person inspection of the facilities manufacturing either drugs or the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients that are essential components of pharmaceuticals. And yet FDA has not promulgated guidance or publicized policies on virtual FDA inspections so that the unnecessary blockade of drug approvals can be lifted. FDA has claimed it has performed virtual inspections of food-manufacturing facilities, but has not claimed that it has performed a single virtual inspection of a drug-manufacturing facility. By contrast, the European drug manufacturing regulatory body (the European Medicines Agency, or EMA) and its British counterpart (the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, or MHRA) have been performing such inspections since March.
At the PDA webinar, which was attended by more than 350 individuals involved in drug manufacturing (and also apparently by some FDA officials: let’s hope they recognize the ease and promise of virtual inspections), presentations described the procedures that drug manufacturers should establish for the conduct of virtual inspections (including that video and audio should be streamed in real time, without alteration or enhancement) and discussed the practices that inspected entities need to embrace (such as ensuring that adequate wifi capabilities are available in all areas which are subject to inspection). (This blogpost will be updated to provide a link to the presentations, when they are available.) One presenter, Peter Miller of Dynamic Compliance Solutions, demonstrated a 360camera that provides viewers of the video feed the same capabilities that an inspector or multiple inspectors would have if they were personally present at the inspected facility. As you can see in the brief video, viewers can:
- Instruct personnel on-site to move the camera to particular places or in certain directions;
- Remotely pan or tilt the view provided by the camera as the remote inspectors wish, and, if there are multiple remote inspectors, each viewer can tilt or pan the camera to view different areas, people, or equipment as they wish (by left-clicking and rolling the mouse), and can zoom in and out;
- Interview plant personnel; and
- Demand to view specific documents through a flexible and high-resolution document camera.
Which brings us to the immortal lyrics of Cole Porter, popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. “Let’s Fall in Love” suggested that “birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it,” and implied, “Why don’t we do it?” The same question could be asked of FDA about virtual inspections. (This blogger’s question is rhetorical, only, because offering his honest response would be based on speculation and the content of the answer would be undignified.) It is clear that COVID is going to prevent adequate FDA on-site inspections for months, if not years, and yet . . .