TRENTON — Gov. Christie on Monday said the pharmaceutical industry will partner with the National Institutes of Health to more quickly find solutions to stem the opioid epidemic.
Speaking after a closed-door meeting in Trenton, Christie said 14 pharmaceutical companies have agreed to share data and, working with the NIH, develop non-addictive pain medicine and new medication-assisted treatment for those who are addicted.
"As this crisis has increased, the need for attention has increased and resources has increased even more," said Christie, chairman of President Trump's national opioid commission.
Christie also confirmed a report that New Jersey would commit $200 million to help combat the problem. He said those details would be rolled out later in the week.
Fast-tracking the development of new drugs could require changes to Food and Drug Administration processes, the governor said, adding that it could be necessary "given the nature of the crisis and the incredible need of the American people."
An estimated 142 Americans were dying daily from drug overdoses in 2015, "a death toll equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks," Christie's commission said in its interim report to the president in May, relying on the most recent statistics then available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New projections, for the year ended Jan. 31, 2017, would put the toll at 175 a day nationwide.
"It's unacceptable," Christie said Monday, "and that's why it's a national emergency and that's why the president agrees it's a national emergency."
Francis S. Collins, the head of the NIH, compared the opioid crisis to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. Christie echoed that, saying partnerships at the time helped turn a diagnosis from a death sentence to something that today is treated as a chronic disease. He hoped the industry-government partnership announced Monday would do the same for the opioid crisis, he said.
"I remember very well the marches in Washington and in states all over this country by those who were concerned about losing their loved ones to HIV/AIDS," Christie said. "We're now losing tens of thousands of more people to this than we did at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Where are the marches? Where are the marches? Where are people out there to demand that we do the very same thing now that we did then?"
The 14 companies represented Monday were Allergan, Amicus Therapeutics, Braeburn, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, Chromocell, Eisai, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Nektar, Otsuka, Pacira, Pfizer, and Purdue Pharma. Federal officials from the NIH and FDA were also in attendance, the governor said, along with Trump aide Kellyanne Conway and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a commission member.
Conway described the commission as bipartisan "because opioid addiction is a nonpartisan issue starving for bipartisan solutions."
"This is one that really should bring together people right, left, and center," she said, as well as people from a variety of fields: police, healthcare providers, faith leaders, non-governmental organizations, elected officials, and pharmaceutical companies.
Stephen J. Ubl, head of the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said there are "silos and barriers to information sharing" that the drug companies would seek to overcome through the partnership.
Not everyone saw the step as a positive one.
"This is a bad idea," Adriane Fugh-Berman, a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, said after learning about the initiative. "We shouldn't be asking the industry that caused the opioid epidemic to solve it. They are unlikely to come up with any solutions that don't make themselves a profit. The answer to the opioid epidemic is not more pills."
Fugh-Berman, who directs the university's PharmedOut project, whose stated mission is to educate prescribers and publicize pharmaceutical marketing practices, was particularly surprised to see Purdue Pharma's CEO among the list of attendees at the roundtable. Purdue's role in the opioid epidemic has been the subject of numerous investigations.
Asked about Purdue's inclusion, Christie noted at the news conference that the commission's role is separate from any legal or law enforcement actions regarding the companies, and that the two won't intersect.
At the commission's recommendation, Trump last month said the opioid crisis constituted a national emergency, although the president has yet to make an official declaration. Asked Monday, Christie said the Trump administration wanted to "make sure they get it right." He said he had spoken with Trump last week, who "reiterated his commitment … and is waiting for his staff to come up with the appropriate way to do this."
Other recommendations included equipping all U.S. law-enforcement officers with the emergency opioid overdose antidote Naloxone and expanding access to medication-assisted treatment for people who are addicted to opioids.
The commission's report generally got a positive reception from experts on addiction around the country, although they worried whether the president would be influenced by others in his administration, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who have emphasized law enforcement and anti-immigration moves as ways to battle substance abuse.
In New Jersey, observers say that Christie has had a mixed record. It is unclear to what extent the proposals he would announce later this week would change that.
Frank L. Greenagel, an addiction and recovery specialist and adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work, said some of the initiatives reported to be in the package had been proposed long ago and already implemented in other states.
And while $200 million sounds like a nice number, Greenagel said, the governor has not said whether it would be divided over one year or five or 10. "Spread over a period of time, the amount is neither impressive nor likely to make much of an impact," he said.