Gavel lying in a courtroom.

The Impossibility of Legal Accountability for COVID-19 Torts

By Chloe Reichel and Valerie Gutmann Koch

Since the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers, businesses, and other entities have anticipated litigation around tort claims associated with the novel coronavirus. Early in 2020, scholars here began to grapple with questions of tort liability relating to the pandemic response. However, nearly three years later, it appears that the warnings of a “tidal wave” of lawsuits were vastly overstated.

In this symposium, we asked torts scholars to reflect on questions surrounding whether and how individuals and entities might be held liable for the harms associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, particularly as infection has grown increasingly widespread and COVID mitigations have become more limited or entirely eliminated.

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Washington DC 09 20 2021. More than 600,000 white flags honor lives lost to COVID, on the National Mall. The art installation " In America: Remember" was created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.

Introduction to the Symposium: Health Law and Policy in an Era of Mass Suffering

By Chloe Reichel and Benjamin A. Barsky

Last spring, the United States crossed the bleak and preventable 1,000,000-death mark for lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this symposium, our hope is to acknowledge — and mourn — this current era of mass suffering and death.

In particular, we want to reckon with the role of health law and policy in shaping, and at times catalyzing, the impact that the pandemic has had on our loved ones and communities.

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Washington, DC, USA, May 5, 2022: people protest the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion

The Leaked Dobbs Opinion, Explained

By Chloe Reichel

On May 2, 2022, Politico published a leaked draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which showed the Supreme Court’s intent to overturn the right to abortion as decided in Roe v. Wade.

In response to the leak, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted a discussion with legal historian and Daniel P.S. Paul Visiting Professor of Constitutional Law Mary Ziegler and Petrie-Flom Center Faculty Director, James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law, and Deputy Dean I. Glenn Cohen.

Together, Cohen and Ziegler explained the background of the case, the contents of the draft opinion, and its potential implications not just for abortion access, but also for other constitutionally-protected rights, and for access to reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilization.

The highlights of the conversation have been edited and condensed below.

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GHRP affiliated researchers.

Introducing the Global Health and Rights Project’s New Affiliated Researchers

(Clockwise from top left: Alma Beltrán y Puga, Luciano Bottini Filho, Ana Lorena Ruano, María Natalia Echegoyemberry)

By Alicia Ely Yamin and Chloe Reichel

Leer en español.

In the years before the pandemic, and especially since the pandemic began, there have been increasing calls to decolonize global health. Setting aside what Ṣẹ̀yẹ Abímbọ́lá rightly characterizes as the slipperiness of both the terms “decolonizing” and “global health,” these calls speak to the need to reimagine governance structures, knowledge discourses, and legal frameworks — from intellectual property to international financial regulation.

Global health law itself, anchored in the International Health Regulations (2005), purports to present a universal perspective, but arguably rigidifies colonialist assumptions about the sources of disease, national security imperatives, priorities in monitoring “emergencies,” and governance at a distance. The diverse tapestry of international human rights scholarship related to health is often not reflected in analyses of the field from the economic North. In turn, that narrow vision of human rights has also increasingly faced critiques from TWAIL, Law & Political Economy, and other scholars, for blinkered analyses that fail to challenge the structural violence in our global institutional order — which the pandemic both laid bare and exacerbated.

In an attempt to enlarge discussion of these important topics and amplify diverse voices, the Petrie-Flom Center is welcoming four new affiliated researchers to the Global Health and Rights Project (GHRP).

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Professional business teleworkers connecting online and working from home for their corporate company, remote working and networks concept.

Introduction to the Symposium: Build Back Better? Health, Disability, and the Future of Work Post-COVID

By Chloe Reichel, Marissa Mery, and Michael Ashley Stein

This week marks the two-year anniversary of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.

It is at this particular moment that we, in the United States, are beginning to see the sociological construction of the end of the pandemic: metrics measuring COVID-19 transmission have been radically revised to reshape perceptions of risk; masks are, once again, being shed en masse; and remote workers are being urged back to the office. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” President Joseph Biden said during his March 1, 2022 State of the Union address.

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mask

COVID-19 is Still a Crisis for All

By Chloe Reichel

Recently, a narrative that COVID-19 is now a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” has emerged.

Setting aside the callousness of the claim, the biggest problem with this narrative is that it’s wrong. COVID-19 continues to threaten the health and well-being of all, regardless of vaccination status.

As we now know, vaccinated individuals can be infected with and transmit the delta variant. “Breakthrough” infections are not rare — countries with better data collection efforts than the U.S., including Israel and the United Kingdom, estimate vaccine efficacy against infection by the delta variant at around 40-50%.

This isn’t to say that the vaccines are worthless. We should continue to work to promote vaccine uptake, as the vaccines do provide a level of protection against the most severe outcomes.

But we need to understand: We can’t end this pandemic with vaccines alone.

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Traditional countryside scene in the Netherlands with windbreak lane of poplar trees in the wind under summer sky. Ens, Flevoland Province, the Netherlands.

Q&A with Mason Marks on New Psychedelics Law and Regulation Initiative

By Chloe Reichel

On June 30th, the Petrie-Flom Center announced the launch of a three-year research initiative, the Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR), which is supported by a generous grant from the Saisei Foundation.

The Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School will advance evidence-based psychedelics law and policy.

In 2017, the FDA designated MDMA a breakthrough therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2018 the agency recognized psilocybin as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant depression. These designations indicate that psychedelics may represent substantial improvements over existing treatments for mental health conditions. Many other psychedelics, including ibogaine, ketamine, and dimethyltryptamine, are the focus of ongoing psychiatric research and commercialization efforts.

Despite the proliferation of clinical research centers and increasing private investment in psychedelic drug development, there is a relative lack of research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics research, commerce, and therapeutics.

In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed, Senior Fellow and POPLAR Project Lead Mason Marks explains how POPLAR will fill this gap, and previews some of the initiative’s topics of inquiry.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCT. 8, 2019: Rally for LGBTQ rights outside Supreme Court as Justices hear oral arguments in three cases dealing with discrimination in the workplace because of sexual orientation.

The Many Harms of State Bills Blocking Youth Access to Gender-Affirming Care

By Chloe Reichel

State legislation blocking trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care puts kids at risk, thwarts physician autonomy, and potentially violates a number of federal laws, write Jack L. Turban, Katherine L. Kraschel, and I. Glenn Cohen in a viewpoint published today in JAMA.

So far this year, 15 states have proposed bills that would limit access to gender-affirming care. One of these bills, Arkansas’ HB1570/SB347, already has become law.

This legislative trend should be troubling to all, explained Cohen, Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. In an email interview, he highlighted “how exceptionally restrictive these proposed laws are,” adding that they are “out of step with usual medical, ethical, and legal rules regarding discretion of the medical profession and space for parental decision-making.”

Turban, child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine also offered further insight as to the medical and legal concerns these bills raise over email.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Are Employers That Ditch Mask Mandates Liable for COVID-19 Infections at Work?

By Chloe Reichel

Last week, in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance indicating that vaccinated individuals need not wear face coverings indoors, a number of states and businesses swiftly did away with indoor mask mandates.

Widespread criticism followed, focusing on the dangerous policy vacuum that now exists. The CDC has suggested unvaccinated individuals follow an honor system and continue masking — but such an honor system is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

In the absence of indoor mask policies, individuals face increased risk of exposure to the virus. And some groups are particularly at risk of contracting the virus now, including immunocompromised individuals, for whom vaccines may not confer protection, and children under the age of 12, for whom a vaccine has not yet been authorized.

To better understand the new guidance and its implications for workers who are no longer protected by mask mandates, I spoke with Sharona Hoffman, an expert in health and employment law. Hoffman is the Edgar A. Hahn Professor of Law, a professor of bioethics, and Co-Director of Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. In our interview, Hoffman explained whether an employer may be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 after an occupational exposure, and highlighted other key issues to anticipate regarding COVID-19 and the workplace.

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