Patient receives Covid-19 vaccine.

What’s the Law on Vaccine Exemptions? A Religious Liberty Expert Explains

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

By Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia

For Americans wary of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, like the sweeping requirements President Joe Biden announced Sept. 9, 2021, it seems there are plenty of leaders offering ways to get exemptions – especially religious ones.

No major organized religious group has officially discouraged the vaccine, and many, like the Catholic Church, have explicitly encouraged them. Yet pastors from New York to California have offered letters to help their parishioners – or sometimes anyone who asks – avoid the shots.

These developments point to deep confusion over how to win a religious exemption. So what are they, and is the government even required to offer the exemptions in the first place?

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doctor holding clipboard.

Preventing Misuse of COVID-19 Vaccine Medical Exemptions

By Ross D. Silverman and Gabriel T. Bosslet

As COVID-19 vaccination mandates become increasingly common, we can expect exemption requests (and misuse) to become increasingly widespread, too.

Most entities requiring vaccination mandates or proof of vaccination upon entry may offer limited grounds upon which an individual may request an exemption, usually based upon religious beliefs or medical reasons. Recent history with childhood immunization programs shows less rigorously-structured and -enforced vaccination exemption policies are vulnerable to increased usage, relative to narrower or more stringently-monitored programs. That history also shows there is a possibility some health care licensees may be willing to support individuals seeking to circumvent COVID-19-related requirements through offering questionable medical exemptions.

Entities imposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates, and state health care licensure boards, can take several simple but significant steps to counter misuse of medical exemptions and better protect communities from COVID-19. These safeguards also can decrease the temptation for licensed health professionals to recklessly undermine critical, lawful, evidence-driven public health efforts.

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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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Person filling syringe from vial.

Religious Exemptions to Vaccines and the Anti-Vax Movement

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Two major problems with granting religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are that they are very hard to police, and that they are routinely gamed.

Religious freedom is a core value in the United States. This makes policing religious exemptions to vaccination hard – and rightly so. The government policing people’s religion raises a number of thorny issues.

The problem is that the same people who eagerly promote anti-vaccine misinformation are just as eager to misuse religion to avoid vaccinating, and have no hesitation or compunction about coaching others to do the same. And without policing, it is easy for those misled by anti-vaccine misinformation to use the religious exemption.

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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. 

By

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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Patient receives Covid-19 vaccine.

What’s the Difference Between Vaccine Approval (BLA) and Authorization (EUA)?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on June 3, 2021. 

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

Recently, Pfizer and BioNTech and Moderna announced that they are seeking full FDA approval for their mRNA COVID-19 vaccines — filing, in FDA parlance, a Biologics License Application (BLA). Johnson & Johnson plans to file its own BLA later this year. But currently, all three vaccines are being distributed under a different FDA mechanism, the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). What’s the difference, under the hood, between these two mechanisms? Why would these companies want to go through the BLA process? And what tools can policymakers use to make the EUA to BLA shift better?

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Close up of a Doctor making a vaccination in the shoulder of patient.

The Legality and Feasibility of COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates for Children

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

On May 10, 2021 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded its Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include children aged 12-15.

The vaccine was previously authorized for use in those aged 16 and older. The company has announced it will seek emergency use authorization for younger children by September.

Now that children over the age of 12 can get vaccinated against COVID-19, will immunization against SARS-CoV-2 become a requirement for the return to public schools this fall?

My answer: In the near term, we probably will not see COVID-19 vaccine mandates for school children. And in the longer term, it depends.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

5 Questions About COVID-19 and Religious Exemptions

By Chloe Reichel

On February 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a shadow docket decision that could foretell sweeping limitations for public health measures, both within and outside the COVID-19 pandemic context.

The Court’s ruling in the case, Gateway City Church v. Newsom, blocked a county-level ban on church services, despite the fact that the ban applied across the board to all indoor gatherings. This religious exceptionalism is emerging as a key trend in recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those related to COVID-19 restrictions.

To better understand what these rulings might mean for public health, free exercise of religion, the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential vaccine mandates, I spoke with Professor Elizabeth Sepper, an expert in religious liberty, health law, and equality at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

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Empty classroom.

Can Colleges and Universities Require Student COVID-19 Vaccination?

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Law Review Blog.

By I. Glenn Cohen and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

In the last year, colleges and universities across the U.S. struggled with how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent data, from January 2021, shows a mix of online and in-person modes of instruction.

Pie chart of modes of instruction for higher education institutions during the pandemic.

At the same time, a study of the experience in early fall 2020 found an association between colleges and universities with in-person instruction and increased infection incidence in the counties within which the schools were located. With vaccine authorization in the U.S. and the promise of potential availability for student populations in late spring and summer 2021 (in most states’ allocation plans these students are among the last groups in prioritization), there is increasing interest by higher education institutions in moving more of their fall 2021 educational instruction and non-instructional activities to in-person modes. Vaccinating students is a key step to safely reopening campuses, in whole or in part, in a way that is safe for students, faculty, staff, and local communities. At the same time, university leaders are likely reasonably concerned about the legality of mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Not all students, faculty or staff may appreciate such a requirement, and anti-vaccine groups are more than ready to assist in litigation — as, for example, they did when the University of California required influenza vaccines for on-campus attendance (a preliminary injunction in that case was denied). In this essay, we discuss whether universities can legally require vaccination as a condition of attendance and with what accommodations.

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