FDA cites ‘risk of false results’ and concerns about labeling and ‘performance claims’ in its official warning letter to Innova, a company with connections to Chinese firms
By many standards, the US government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been phenomenal. However, the many emergency use authorizations (EUAs) awarded by the US federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to bring as many COVID-19 tests to market as quickly as possible means some of those tests in use today at clinical laboratories nationwide have not undergone the normal pre-market review and clearance typically required by the FDA.
But in its recall announcement, the FDA described Innova’s recall of its SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Test as a “Class 1 recall” and gave the stern warning, “Use of these devices may cause serious injuries or death.”
And in its public Safety Communication, the federal agency wrote, “The FDA has significant concerns that the performance of the test has not been adequately established, presenting a risk to health. In addition, labeling distributed with certain configurations of the test includes performance claims that did not accurately reflect the performance estimates observed during the clinical studies of the tests. Finally, the test has not been authorized, cleared, or approved by the FDA for commercial distribution or use in the United States, as required by law.”
So, it is odd that the UK government’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) would disregard the FDA’s warning and extend its own exceptional use authorization (EUA) of the Innova COVID-19 antigen test through late August. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the MHRA did.
FDA Warns Public to Stop Using Innova’s Rapid Antigen COVID-19 Test
Widescale COVID-19 testing has been viewed as key to containing community spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and fast, inexpensive rapid COVID-19 testing is a necessity in that fight.
However, as clinical laboratory scientists know, rapid tests are not as specific as molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which means there is a higher chance of false negatives and false positives with a COVID-19 rapid test than with a molecular test. When diagnosing COVID-19, a PCR test is considered the gold-standard, though results can take multiple days to produce.
Nevertheless, according to the Innova Europe website, the Innova rapid antigen test has a sensitivity on symptomatic individuals of 97% and a specificity of 99% and is the most widely used test in the world. More than 500 million units are in circulation.
Regardless, in its June 10th warning, the FDA called for the public to stop using the Innova Medical Group SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid test for diagnostic use.
“The FDA has significant concerns that the performance of the test has not been adequately established, presenting a risk to health,” the FDA stated. “In addition, labeling distributed with certain configurations of the test includes performance claims that did not accurately reflect the performance estimates observed during the clinical studies of the tests. Finally, the test has not been authorized, cleared, or approved by the FDA for commercial distribution or use in the United States, as required by law.”
In its warning, the FDA recommended anyone in possession of Innova tests “destroy the tests by placing them in the trash” or return the tests to Innova.
The Innova SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid test is also distributed under the names:
- Innova COVID-19 Self-Test Kit (3T Configuration),
- Innova Medical Group SARS-CoV-2-Antigen Rapid Test (7T Configuration), and
- Innova Medical Group SARS-CoV-2-Antigen Rapid Test (25T Configuration).
Innova Medical Group was formed in March 2020 by Charles Huang, PhD, founder and chairman of private-equity firm Pasaca Capital. The Pasaca website states Innova worked with its primary contract manufacturer, China-based Xiamen Biotime Biotechnology Co., for several months to design “a highly accurate rapid antigen test for COVID-19.”
“The simple test takes less than five minutes to administer and generates results in as little as 20 minutes without the need for a machine,” the website states. “Equally important, Innova and its partner have been able to manufacture the product at scale, presently in excess of ten million kits per day.”
However, The Los Angeles Times claims that in September 2020 Innova “secured a vast supply of rapid coronavirus tests from an obscure Chinese manufacturer before established pharmaceutical companies could do so.” The LA Times adds that Innova distributed more than 70,000 tests in the United States even though the FDA had not acted on Innova’s application to sell its tests domestically.
This may have contributed to the FDA’s dire warning to discontinue use and discard the Innova tests.
UK’s MHRA Disagrees with FDA Warning
But in the UK, it is a different story. According to The Guardian, Innova’s lateral flow tests are the cornerstone of “Operation Moonshot”, the government’s mass testing plan aimed at reducing community transmission by identifying asymptomatic COVID-19 positive people using an inexpensive, quick-response test distributed for home use and to workplaces, schools, and test centers.
In “Rapid COVID Tests Used in Mass UK Programme Get Scathing US Report,” The Guardian reports that “criticism of the Innova test has been fierce” in the UK following the FDA’s “scathing review” of its rapid antigen test. However, after investigating the concerns raised by the FDA, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) reiterated that the Innova lateral flow tests were safe to use.
“We have now concluded our review of the risk assessment and are satisfied that no further action is necessary or advisable at this time,” said Graeme Tunbridge, MHRA Director of Devices, in a UK government response statement which announced that the MHRA was extending the Exceptional Use Authorization (EUA) for the tests use in its national asymptomatic testing program through Aug. 28, 2021. “This has allowed us to extend the EUA to allow ongoing supply of these [lateral flow devices] over the coming months. People can be assured of the MHRA’s work to continuously monitor the tests in use; as is our standard process.”
Innova Defends Its Test, FDA Repeats Its Warning
An Innova spokesperson told The Guardian: “The Innova rapid antigen test has been widely used, studied, tested, scrutinized and analyzed with data supporting the efficacy of the test from the largest mass testing program out of the UK. Innova is confident about the quality of its product.”
However, the FDA maintains Innova’s COVID-19 lateral flow test included labeling that provided “false and misleading” estimates of the test’s clinical performance. In its warning letter to Innova, the FDA also pointed out that the clinical study data Innova submitted as part of its EUA request was “identical to data previously provided by other manufacturers in their EUA requests. The data reliability and accuracy issues noted herein raise significant concerns that the performance of the SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Qualitative Test has not been adequately established, and that the products distributed by Innova without FDA approval, clearance, or authorization could present a serious risk to the public health.”
Pathologists and clinical laboratory professionals in this country will want to watch carefully to see if efforts to increase regulatory scrutiny of diagnostic tests in the UK spills across the Atlantic.
—Andrea Downing Peck