The FDA, Swine Flu and Twitter

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights on September 26, 2009

It used to be that the public found out about FDA approvals in a relatively straightforward way: the wire services would tell them, either because the company involved pushed out a press release or the FDA did. It was a great example of the old-fashioned news flow: newsmaker to media to public.

That’s a system that is breaking down in the age of text messaging and Twitter, and another FDA approval — this time of the new swine flu vaccine — illustrated that brilliantly. At about 1 p.m. on Sept. 15, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, was giving her opening statement at a House of Representatives committee meeting. There was nothing in her prepared statement that suggested there would be anything more than an update on the current swine flu planning, but not long after Sebelius started speaking, she dropped a bombshell: the FDA had cleared the swine flu vaccine.

Because the committee meeting wasn’t packed with FDA reporters, the new trickled out slowly. at 1:37 p.m., Rep. Greg Walden broke the news, hammering a tweet into his BlackBerry: “Participating in hearing on H1N1 flu with Sec Sebelius. FDA has just approved four more vaccine producers. Go to http://www.flu.gov for more info.”

By the end of the hour, the first wire story had appeared, from the Associated Press. But into today’s fragmented media world, a single AP story didn’t have immediate impact and questions began to swirl. It’s not the wire services that carry the world’s most up-to-date news. It’s Twitter.

“FDA has approved the swine flu vaccine, but no details yet. Lemme know if you seem ’em before I do,” tweeted Scott Hensley, the veteran health reporter now at NPR, at 2:26 p.m. CNBC’s Mike Huckman had jumped on the case, informing his followers at 2:37 p.m. “Sebelius told Congress apparently. Told FDA working up PR now.” Nine minutes later, he had more confirmation: “Sanofi-Aventis $SNY confirms FDA has approved its H1N1 #swineflu vaccine. AP reports FDA has also OK’d AstraZeneca $AZN & Novartis $NVS vax.”

Even two hours after Sec. Sebelius made the news, journalists were still hunting down details. At 3:09 p.m., the Baltimore Sun’s dependable Kelly Brew was still seeking out info, keeping her followers up to date: “hearing reports that a swine flu vaccine has just won FDA approval.. will keep you posted.”

By the end of the day, the FDA and company press releases were out, the story was being told, and order had been restored to the media universe. Still, there was no official government word of the approval on Twitter until nearly 8 p.m., when the flu.gov’s Twitter stream carried a link to the FDA press release.

What’s remarkable is where the tweets didn’t come from. The FDA’s new “drug info” Twitter account carried no news of the approval. And despite the fact the two of the four companies whose vaccines were cleared are on Twitter, there was nary a tweet on the subject from AstraZeneca or Novartis.

The point isn’t that the old model of news distribution is hopelessly antiquated (it worked just fine on Friday, with two FDA approvals reaching the public using the usual pathway), it’s that there are a lot more channels to think about, channels that the media are already relying upon for their newsgathering. For huge and growing numbers of newshounds, Twitter is their primary information source. As the flu approval demonstrated, a lack of engagement on Twitter means — quite literally — missing the story.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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