BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 29, 2019: NIH NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH sign emblem seal on gateway center entrance building at NIH campus. The NIH is the US's medical research agency.

The NIH Has the Opportunity to Address Research Funding Disparities

By Leah Pierson

The Biden administration plans to greatly increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2022, presenting the agency with new opportunities to better align research funding with public health needs.

The NIH has long been criticized for disproportionately devoting its research dollars to the study of conditions that affect a small and advantaged portion of the global population.

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Person receiving vaccine.

Why Do Differences in Clinical Trial Design Make It Hard to Compare COVID-19 Vaccines?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on June 30, 2021. 

By Lisa Larrimore OuelletteNicholson PriceRachel Sachs, and Jacob S. Sherkow

The number of COVID-19 vaccines is growing, with 18 vaccines in use around the world and many others in development. The global vaccination campaign is slowly progressing, with over 3 billion doses administered, although the percentage of doses administered in low-income countries remains at only 0.3%. But because of differences in how they were tested in clinical trials, making apples-to-apples comparisons is difficult — even just for the 3 vaccines authorized by the FDA for use in the United States. In this post, we explore the open questions that remain because of these differences in clinical trial design, the FDA’s authority to help standardize clinical trials, and what lessons can be learned for vaccine clinical trials going forward.

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Illustration of a man and a woman standing in front of a DNA helix

A Proposal for Localized Review to Safeguard Genetic Database Privacy

By Robert I. Field, Anthony W. Orlando, and Arnold J. Rosoff

Large genetic databases pose well-known privacy risks. Unauthorized disclosure of an individual’s data can lead to discrimination, public embarrassment, and unwanted revelation of family secrets. Data leaks are of increasing concern as technology for reidentifying anonymous genomes continues to advance.

Yet, with the exception of California and Virginia, state legislative attempts to protect data privacy, most recently in Florida, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, have failed to garner widespread support. Political resistance is particularly stiff with respect to a private right of action. Therefore, we propose a federal regulatory approach, which we describe below.

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Emergency department entrance.

“Stick to the Science”? FDA, Ethics, and Pandemics

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on February 8, 2021. 

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Throughout the current pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health experts have called on the government to “stick to the science.” This was at the same time that former President Donald Trump repeatedly undermined scientific expertise and prioritized political interests over responsible public health practices. Yet the particular ways in which the Trump administration mishandled the pandemic can divert attention from more fundamental challenges confronting government actors in any emergency — challenges that respect for science alone is insufficient to address. These challenges concern the norms guiding regulators’ exercise of their power under the law, as well as the proper role of values in public health and public policy more broadly.

FDA has struggled throughout COVID-19 to maintain high standards of integrity, including independence from undue political influence. We see this most clearly in the decisions FDA has faced in applying its power to issue emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for medical countermeasures against COVID-19. FDA’s experience using its emergency powers during COVID-19 speaks to the complex relationship between science and ethics in health policy — between empirical fact finding and normative questions involving ethics and public values.

This post reflects on the ethical implications of FDA’s use of its emergency powers, and suggests opportunities for greater accountability and more systematic decision-making by health regulators moving forward.

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Pile of colorful pills in blister packs

Expanding The Right to Try Unproven Treatments: A Dangerous, Deregulatory Proposal

By Richard Klein, Kenneth I. Moch, and Arthur L. Caplan

A new proposal out of the Goldwater Institute (GI), a libertarian think tank, advances an oversimplified critique of the U.S. regulatory process for approving medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases, with the ultimate goal of weakening the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

You may remember the Goldwater Institute as the architect of the initial state “Right to Try” (RtT) legislation from a few years ago. The idea, marketed as increasing access to experimental medicines, was actually calculated to circumvent FDA oversight so that individuals could try still-unproven experimental medicines without what Goldwater viewed as pointless bureaucratic paternalism. RtT legislation was adopted by 41 states and ultimately by the U.S. Congress.

When former President Trump signed the Right to Try bill into federal law with great fanfare on May 20, 2018, he stated that “countless American lives will ultimately be saved.” Three years later, the promise proved to be meaningless, as evidenced by the difficulty in identifying more than a handful of individuals who have even pursued the RtT pathway, much less finding data to show that it has saved lives.

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Syringe being filled from a vial. Vaccine concept illustration.

From 9/11 to COVID-19: A Brief History of FDA Emergency Use Authorization

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on January 14, 2021. 

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The ongoing fight against COVID-19 has thrown a spotlight on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its power to grant emergency use authorizations (EUAs). EUA authority permits FDA to authorize formally unapproved products for temporary use as emergency countermeasures against threats to public health and safety.

Under § 564 of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), use of FDA’s EUA authority requires a determination that an emergency exists by secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as a declaration by the HHS Secretary that emergency circumstances exist warranting the issuance of EUAs. Each issuance of an EUA requires that FDA conclude that:

  • it is reasonable to believe that a given product “may be effective” as an emergency countermeasure,
  • the known and potential benefits of authorization outweigh the known and potential risks, and
  • no formally approved alternatives are available at the time.

Annie Kapnick’s post on COVID-19 and FDA’s EUA authority provides a helpful overview of FDA’s emergency powers and their use in response to the pandemic. A brief look at the history of FDA’s emergency powers, including key events leading up to their enactment — Thalidomide, swine flu, AIDS, and 9/11 — offers perspective on the situation facing FDA today and its implications for the future. The history of EUA illustrates how its use today against COVID-19 involves fundamental questions about the role of public officials, scientific expertise, and administrative norms in times of crisis.

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child getting vaccinated

How Can Policymakers Encourage COVID-19 Vaccine Trials for Children?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on December 18, 2020. 

By Jacob S. Sherkow, Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, Nicholson Price, and Rachel Sachs

The past two weeks have been full of exciting COVID-19 vaccine news, including the FDA’s emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for the Pfizer–BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and the nationwide rollout of Pfizer’s vaccine. Choosing how to allocate access to vaccine doses has been left to individual states, leaving policymakers with difficult decisions about how to prioritize their populations, complicated in part by the federal government’s reduction in some vaccine shipments.

With a limited supply of doses, who should get the first shots? Some commentators have suggested prioritizing children early for a host of reasons, including hope about children returning to school. Last month a New York Times column asserted that “saving the most lives could mean prioritizing the vaccination of children and young adults.” But there is an important reason that kids can’t be part of the vaccine line yet: we don’t know whether these vaccines work for them. In this post, we explain why COVID-19 vaccines are only just starting to be tested in children and what policymakers can do to spur pediatric vaccine trials.

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Person receiving vaccine.

What You Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on December 3, 2020. 

By Jeff Neal

The race to approve and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 got a huge shot in the arm this week.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom approved a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. On the same day in the United States, a panel of experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a first-stage plan for distributing the vaccine to some of the most at-risk Americans. Separately, another advisory committee is set to meet twice in the coming weeks to evaluate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the safety and efficacy of both the Pfizer vaccine and a similar one produced by Moderna.

To better understand the impact of these developments, Harvard Law Today recently spoke with public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, about the vaccine, who is likely to get it first, and whether employers and states can require people to get vaccinated.

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Vial and syringe.

Challenges in COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout: Lessons from the UK

By Sravya Chary

Just over a week after the United Kingdom became the first Western country to authorize the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for emergency use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed suit on December 11, 2020.

This lag may prove beneficial. The United States can and should cautiously assess the United Kingdom’s vaccination strategy to avoid challenges that may impede its ability to control the virus.

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Spoonful of sugar.

From “A Spoonful of Sugar” to Operation Warp Speed: COVID-19 Vaccines and Their Metaphors

By Ross D. Silverman, Katharine J. Head, and Emily Beckman

As professors studying public health policy, narrative medicine, and how providers and the public communicate about vaccines, we recognize the power and peril of using the rhetorical tool of metaphors in vaccination and, more broadly, the COVID-19 response efforts.

Metaphors can be an effective shorthand to help people understand complex ideas, but we also must remain cognizant of the many ways metaphors may distort, divide, or misrepresent important details.

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