ACCRA, GHANA: April 23, 2020 - The testing of samples for the coronavirus in a veterinary lab in Accra, Ghana.

Does It Really Matter How the COVID-19 Pandemic Started?

By Barbara Pfeffer Billauer

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, much air time and social media space has been allocated to the lab leak vs. natural spillover dispute regarding the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

To summarize briefly, the question is whether the pandemic was caused by a leak from a biosafety level (BSL) four lab in Wuhan, China, or whether it arose naturally as a consequence of a virus jumping from a bat to an animal and then to humans.

Given that the “truth” will likely never be known, and certainly not provable, the question becomes: is it important to seriously consider the lab leak theory?

The answer, I suggest, is an unabashed yes — but not for the reason you might think. The question is important prospectively, not retrospectively. Debating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is a fool’s errand. Considering laboratory accidents writ large, however, is important, as they remain a potent threat to international biosecurity.

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Bill of Health - Globe and vaccine, covid vaccine

Biotech Companies Are Opening Manufacturing Sites in Africa: Will This Help Vaccine Equity?

By Sarah Gabriele

Two pharmaceutical giants of the pandemic, Moderna and BioNTech, are taking steps for increasing the manufacturing capacity for the COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. Last March, Moderna announced its plan to set up a manufacturing facility in Kenya to produce messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, including COVID-19 shots. Similarly, in 2021, BioNTech started planning its own manufacturing plant in Africa, which will be composed of modular shipping containers.

Measures to address global vaccine inequity could not come sooner. As of December 15, 2022, only 34% of the population in Africa has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with Moderna and BioNTech having provided fewer doses compared to Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. After failing to successfully deliver vaccines equitably during the first two years of the pandemic, Moderna and BioNTech appear now to be taking steps to shoulder greater responsibility for vaccine equity.

However, if companies are ethically required to address the availability of vaccines, these well-intended efforts might still fail to fulfill their moral obligations. Indeed, while the construction of these new sites might sound like great news for fostering the delivery of vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, we should be aware that these manufacturing sites, as well as the existence of manufacturing capacity, might not be enough to achieve desired outcomes.

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Medical armored personnel carrier. Medical cross on the armor of an armored vehicle against the background of the flag of Ukraine at exhibition ARMS AND SECURITY - 2021. Kiev. Ukraine - June 18, 2021.

Sutures for Ukraine: The Medical Case for City Diplomacy

By Vrushab Gowda, Leslie Appleton, and Jesse Ehrenfeld

The war in Ukraine has brought nothing less than an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe. Health care infrastructure has been deliberately — and systematically — targeted by Russian forces since the very outset of the invasion. Hospitals have been bombed, internal displacement has uprooted providers from their communities, and rail lines have come under sustained bombardment from cruise missiles, hindering the resupply of frontline towns. All of this has exacerbated the demands on an already fragile health care system, which strains to keep up. The Ukrainian people urgently need practical solutions.

Enter city diplomacy. In parallel to official channels of federal aid, American cities can play a decisive role in supporting their Ukrainian counterparts under threat. An “Adopt-a-City” campaign could leverage preexisting ties within a sister cities context (like Los Angeles and Kiev, if approved), which can be bolstered and intensified. Where these relationships do not exist, they can be created. New York could “adopt” Odessa. Atlanta, Kharkiv. Houston, Dnipro.

City departments of health would take center stage throughout all of this. Unlike howitzers, ammunition, electrical grids, and water supplies, medical aid is readily portable across international lines and can be concentrated in urban settings. An “Adopt-a-City” platform would provide a unified vehicle for channeling it, permitting American cities to render material and infrastructural assistance alike.

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red and green silhouette illustration of women having a conversation.

The Not-So-Sacred Human Genome: What South Africans Think About Heritable Human Genome Editing

By Donrich Thaldar

South Africans have issued a clarion call for research to move ahead on health-related applications of heritable human genome editing (HHGE), finds my research group’s new public engagement study — the first of its kind in Africa.

The study engaged a diverse group of 30 South Africans in three evenings of deliberations on the governance of HHGE. The methodology entailed (a) facilitated deliberation between the participants with the aim of finding consensus, although consensus was not forced; and (b) ensuring well-informed deliberations by providing participants with balanced, internationally peer-reviewed information about HHGE and the ethical arguments relating to it. The results of these deliberations are summarized briefly below.

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Genetic engineering and digital technology concept.

The ‘Res Nullius’ Construction of Human Genomic Data

By Donrich Thaldar

No one domain of the law holds exclusive sway over human genomic data. Instead, genomic data have a multidimensional legal nature, meaning that multiple legal domains — including property law, privacy law, contract law, and intellectual property law — are all applicable. This opens the door for different persons to have rights originating in different legal domains with respect to the same genomic data.

To determine who has rights with respect to a particular person’s genomic data, the rules of each relevant legal domain must be applied. The application of these rules to genomic data may be relatively straightforward in some domains, but in property law — which is relevant in determining ownership of genomic data — it is often more complicated. Only a handful of jurisdictions have specifically legislated on the ownership of genomic data. In the absence of such specific legislation that provides who owns genomic data, general property law rules must be applied. (In common law legal systems, and some mixed legal systems where legislation is absent, this would entail resorting to the jurisdiction’s common law.) However, given the novelty of applying property law rules to genomic data, it is not always obvious which of the general rules would apply. In this post, I will share some of my research group’s thinking in this regard. Although our thinking is based in South African law, many of the principles are shared with other legal systems.

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UN United Nations general assembly building with world flags flying in front - First Avenue, New York City, NY, USA

The UN Must Take Steps To Be an Accountable Player in Public Health

By Bailey Kennedy

If a government commits a tort, it can be sued — but the United Nations cannot be. That’s because it is generally understood that the UN has absolute immunity, meaning that no national court has jurisdiction over the UN. This immunity is justified on the basis that the UN cannot effectively fulfill its role in the world if it is constantly at risk of being hauled into court around the globe. Moreover, at the time the UN was founded, it was understood to be an organization that would promote peace, security, and health across the globe — and why would such an organization need to be sued? 

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see saw with earth as fulcrum and a pile of vaccines weighing down one side with nothing on the other side.

What Happened to the COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver?

By Sarah Gabriele

In June 2022, after almost two years of debate over a potential COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver, the World Trade Organization adopted the Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement (“WTO Decision”), which provided for a partial waiver of intellectual property rights.

More specifically, the WTO Decision waived patent rights on vaccines and allowed for the use of protected clinical trial data for regulatory approval of vaccines. However, after almost four months since the adoption of the WTO Decision, there is still a large gap in vaccination rates worldwide.

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Lima, Peru - March 8 2019: Group of Peruvian woman supporting the movement girls not mothers (niñas, no madres). A social campaign for abortion rights for underaged raped girls.

Grassroots Mobilization Needed to Defend Abortion Access

By Camila Gianella

On August 3, Kansas voters spurned the recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization by rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment that, in line with the ruling, aimed to ban abortion in the state.

What happened in Kansas shows the central role of social and political mobilization in securing abortion rights. In Kansas, Dobbs caused an unprecedented mobilization of women voters.

On the other hand, without such mobilization, access to abortion can suffer – even if the law protects sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). In the case of Peru, my country, which is often cited as an example of the internationalization of SRHR norms through supranational litigation, internationally recognized legal victories have often fallen short of the high expectations they created. Despite the success of international bodies, abortion rights in Peru have not been expanded. Further, there are attempts at the legislative level to advance a total ban on abortion.

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Grassy field with white picket fence encircling it.

Accessing COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines for Research: The Re-emergence of the Tragedy of the ‘Anticommons’

By Aparajita Lath

Some COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers in the US have refused to share vaccine samples for research purposes, creating an access issue with the potential to delay comparator studies, follow-on research, and new vaccine / drug development.

This issue may be the latest example of the tragedy of the “anticommons” in biomedical research.

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