Los Angeles, California, United States. June 23, 2021: #FreeBritney rally at LA Downtown Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.

There’s More to Decision-Making Capacity than Cognitive Function

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By James Toomey

The doctrine of capacity is a mess.

From Britney Spears’s high-profile struggles to establish her own capacity to the countless, quiet challenges of so many older adults, the doctrine of capacity, which requires people to have the cognitive functioning to understand the nature and consequences of a decision in order for it to be recognized in law, is vague, normatively and medically challenging, and inconsistently applied.

This is a big deal — at stake in every capacity case is whether, on the one hand, an individual may access the legal rights most of us take for granted, to enter into contracts, buy or transfer property, or get married or divorced; or, on the other, whether the legal system will ratify a decision the “real person” never would have made.

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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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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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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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people waiting in a line.

How the Government Can Prevent Individuals from Using Wealth to Cut the Vaccine Line

Cross-posted from COVID-19 and The Law, where it originally appeared on January 27, 2021. 

By

Since the Food & Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna in December 2020, there have been many debates on vaccine allocation and prioritization.

As noted by Harvard Law School Professor Glenn Cohen in a recent interview with Annie Kapnick for the COVID-19 and The Law series, the issue of vaccine distribution is “complicated” because of competing factors decision-makers must consider. The relative weights placed on these factors has led to very different prioritization schemes. Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a hybrid plan that appeared to prioritize individuals who were most likely to contract the virus (e.g., first responders, grocery store workers) over individuals most vulnerable to severe symptoms or death from the virus if contracted (e.g., individuals over the age of 65 not in long-term care facilities). In the United Kingdom, the prioritization groups were primarily based on vulnerability. Similarly, when looking more narrowly at the various plans being implemented at the state level in the United States, there are high degrees of variation.

This post does not seek to evaluate the merits of these or other specific vaccine allocation plans. Rather, it will address a risk that all plans likely face: the potential of individuals using their wealth and access to “cut the line” and be vaccinated ahead of schedule.
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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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lady justice.

Computational Psychiatry for Precision Sentencing in Criminal Law

By Francis X. Shen

A core failing of the criminal justice system is its inability to individualize criminal sentences and tailor probation and parole to meet the unique profile of each offender.

As legal scholar, and now federal judge Stephanos Bibas has observed, “All too often … sentencing guidelines and statutes act as sledgehammers rather than scalpels.”

As a result, dangerous offenders may be released, while offenders who pose little risk to society are left behind bars. And recidivism is common — the U.S. has an astounding recidivism rate of 80% — in part because the current criminal justice system largely fails to address mental health challenges, which are heavily over-represented in the justice system.

Advances in computational psychiatry, such as the deep phenotyping methods explored in this symposium, offer clinicians newfound abilities to practice precision psychiatry. The idea behind precision psychiatry is both simple and elusive: treat individuals as individuals. Yet advancing such a program in practice is “very ambitious” because no two individual brains — and the experiences those brains have had over a lifetime — are the same.

Deep phenotyping offers the criminal justice system the tools to improve public safety, identify low-risk offenders, and modify decision-making to reduce recidivism. Computational psychiatry can lead to what can be described as precision sentencing.

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phone camera

Deep Phenotyping Could Help Solve the Mental Health Care Crisis

By Justin T. Baker

The United States faces a growing mental health crisis and offers insufficient means for individuals to access care.

Digital technologies — the phone in your pocket, the camera-enabled display on your desk, the “smart” watch on your wrist, and the smart speakers in your home — might offer a path forward.

Deploying technology ethically, while understanding the risks of moving too fast (or too slow) with it, could radically extend our limited toolkit for providing access to high-quality care for the many individuals affected by mental health issues for whom the current mental health system is either out of reach or otherwise failing to meet their need.

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