Roger Crystal, M.D., President and CEO of Opiant Pharmaceuticals
America’s opioid epidemic is a topic on both sides of the country’s upcoming Presidential election. The opioid crisis is certainly worthy of mainstage attention, given that US opioid overdose deaths in 2019 rose to more than 50,000.
While these numbers are troubling, they reflect only a small part of our current battle, which grows increasingly treacherous as COVID-19 ravages the country. The pandemic has reduced access to treatment and harm reduction services for populations that are facing increased social isolation, job losses and other hurdles to ongoing treatment for substance use disorders.
According to The Lancet, “As of July 2020, deaths from drug overdose in the USA rose by an estimated 13% in the first half of the year compared with 2019, according to data compiled from several local and state governments. In some states, drug-related deaths climbed by over 30%.”
Although each Presidential candidate has policy proposals on how to address the opioid crisis, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, together we must ensure that proposals seek to increase access to treatment and invest in scientific approaches to treating addiction and overdose.
If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the measures taken to increase access to medications for addiction treatment. For example, In April, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued guidance allowing more flexibility for take-home methadone. To ensure we maintain long term progress, these temporary exceptions driven by our national emergency should be made standard and allowed to remain after coronavirus is no longer a threat.
In addition to access to medications for addiction treatment, increasing access to overdose rescue medication is another important front in battling the opioid epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends medical providers mitigate the risk of overdoses by offering a prescription for an opioid overdose reversal agent to patients who meet certain, at-risk criteria. A NIH-funded analysis found that when states improve access to reversal agents, fatal opioid overdoses fall significantly within just a few years.
Treating the current opioid crisis is vital, but we must also spur medical innovation as the opioid epidemic evolves. Just as Covid-19 is a dangerous variant of coronavirus, the underlying challenges posed by opioids are also shifting. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, have taken our country by storm. Synthetic opioids are now linked to almost three quarters of opioid overdose deaths.
Fentanyl overdose deaths are on the rise, partially because naloxone has potential limitations at reversing overdoses from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. We need innovations and investments in addiction and overdose treatment. This includes new reversal agents designed to address the challenges presented by fentanyl and other future synthetic opioids. Our company, Opiant Pharmaceuticals, with support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, is investigating a nalmefene nasal spray as a potential opioid reversal agent, which if proven and ultimately approved, may be particularly well suited to address challenges associated with treating overdoses from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
Opiant developed the NARCAN® Nasal Spray to save lives, which is core to our mission. The continued commitment from government leaders across the aisle and the collaboration of national health agencies will remain essential to guaranteeing progress on all these fronts. And for our part, pharma companies must remain committed to accessible pricing structures that ensure treatment is accessible to all. Together, we can save lives and turn the tide of the opioid epidemic.