Hundred dollar bills rolled up in a pill bottle

To Address the Overdose Epidemic, Tackle Pharma Industry Influence

By Liza Vertinsky

A recently released government report estimates that 93,000 people died from drug overdose in 2020. This estimate reflects a jump in the death toll of almost 30% from 2019 to 2020, with opioids as a primary driver.

In response, President Biden has called for historic levels of funding for the treatment and prevention of addiction and drug overdose.

Transforming mental health and addiction services is a critical part of tackling the overdose crisis, but it is not enough, on its own, to address this epidemic, or to prevent a future one. We must also alter the conditions that fueled expanded use, and abuse, in the first place. As I argue in Pharmaceutical (Re)capture, a forthcoming article in the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics, this includes a change in how we regulate markets for prescription drugs.

To truly combat the epidemic, I suggest, we have to understand how pain became such a lucrative business and how regulators failed to protect the public health as the market for prescription opioids grew. Then, we need to put this understanding to work in the redesign of pharmaceutical regulation.

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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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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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Health care workers in personal protective equipment attend to a patient.

How Can Policymakers Overcome the Hurdles to Scaling up Antibody Manufacturing?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on February 18, 2021. 

By Rachel SachsJacob S. SherkowLisa Larrimore Ouellette, and Nicholson Price

In our last post, we introduced some of the clinical evidence supporting the use of therapeutic antibodies against COVID-19—including Regeneron’s casirivimab and imdevimab and Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab—and analyzed the existing problems in the distribution and administration of those therapies. Even in just the last few weeks, further clinical evidence has supported the use of these technologies, leading the FDA to issue an additional emergency use authorization for Lilly’s bamlanivimab and etesevimab cocktail. In the near future, though, problems in administering our existing supply of these new drugs may give way to problems producing enough of them—a challenge that is also affecting the vaccine rollout. In this post, we consider the difficult manufacturing issues involved in the therapeutic antibody context (a subject we’ve previously explored regarding vaccines), and what might be done to address them.

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These patients’ samples were to be tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serologic test.

Why Aren’t Therapeutic Antibodies Being Used More to Treat COVID-19?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on January 29, 2021. 

By Nicholson PriceRachel SachsJacob S. Sherkow, and Lisa Larrimore Ouellette

When former President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 in fall 2020, he was treated with monoclonal antibodies, touted as potentially miraculous treatments. Unlike other treatments so touted, there is some rigorous evidence to support these assertions: antibody drugs look like the best treatments currently available to prevent COVID cases from progressing to hospitalization. But months later, the drugs are in limited use and seem to be only a moderately important part of the COVID-19 response. Why aren’t antibodies making more of a difference for ordinary Americans?

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Vial and syringe.

What Can Policymakers Learn from the Slow COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout?

Cross-posted from Written Description, where it originally appeared on January 12, 2021. 

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

In the middle of a record number of COVID-19 infections and deaths—and continued evidence of racial disparities in the pandemic’s effects—December brought some good news to the fight against the pandemic: the FDA’s emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and the ensuing nationwide rollouts. The record-breaking vaccine development timeline and the videos of healthcare workers receiving early vaccines are worth celebrating.

But the subsequent distribution has been tragically slow—echoing distribution challenges for COVID-related goods ranging from PPE to diagnostics. On Dec. 29, Dr. Leana Wen noted that at the initial vaccination rate, it would take 10 years to vaccinate the roughly 80% of Americans needed to achieve herd immunity. According to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, as of today, fewer than 10 million vaccines have been administered in the United States. States are still sitting on nearly two-thirds of the doses they have received, and the federal government is holding half the U.S. supply in reserve. In this post we explain what went wrong and how policymakers can correct course for COVID-19 and avoid such disasters in the future.

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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. 

By

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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Empty classroom.

Can Schools Require the COVID-19 Vaccine? Education, Equity, and the Courts

By Emily Caputo and Blake N. Shultz

As school systems consider policy options for the spring semester, both vaccination requirements and proposals to address inequities in access to education may be top of mind. However, policymakers should be aware of the possible legal challenges they may face.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an educational crisis in the United States by disrupting the learning of millions of students across the country. School closures, remote learning, and generalized societal stress have all raised serious concerns about persistent harm to adolescent learning and development — particularly among low-income and minority students.

While the pandemic has exposed widespread inequities in educational opportunity, it has also revealed the relative inability of the courts to promote access to education. A recent California lawsuit illustrates the manner in which students must rely on state-level, rather than federal, protections to ensure equal access to education. And COVID-19 vaccination requirements, which could facilitate a return to in-person education, are likely to result in lawsuits, and may be struck down by a skeptical and conservative Supreme Court.

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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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