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. 

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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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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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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM- 1 APRIL 2015: A newspaper rack holding several international newspapers, such as The International New York Times, USA Today, Irish Times, Londra Sera and Corriere Della Sera.

Monthly Round-Up of What to Read on Pharma Law and Policy

By Ameet SarpatwariBeatrice Brown, Neeraj Patel, and Aaron S. Kesselheim

Each month, members of the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) review the peer-reviewed medical literature to identify interesting empirical studies, policy analyses, and editorials on health law and policy issues.

Below are the citations for papers identified from the month of April. The selections feature topics ranging from the pre-market development times for innovative vaccines, to an assessment of FDA postmarketing requirements and commitments from 2009 to 2018, to an analysis of implementation challenges and potential effects of U.S. adoption of international reference pricing for prescription drugs. A full posting of abstracts/summaries of these articles may be found on our website.

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international connections concept art.

‘We Claimed Victory Before Time’: COVID-19 in Uruguay

By Chloe Reichel

Leer en español.

Uruguay, once hailed as a model for its pandemic response, recently has seen some of the world’s sharpest increases in COVID-19 cases. Earlier this month, the infection rate in the country surpassed 1,300 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.

What happened?

I asked Dr. Gonzalo Moratorio, virologist at the Institut Pasteur de Montevideo and professor on the Faculty of Science at the Universidad de la República, to explain the shift. Moratorio was instrumental to Uruguay’s early successes in the pandemic, developing and distributing test kits that allowed the country to efficiently identify and isolate cases.

In this Q&A, which has been edited and condensed, he offers a look at the past, present, and future of the COVID-19 pandemic in Uruguay.

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globe.

‘I Think of It in Terms of Years’: The Future of the COVID-19 Pandemic in South Africa

By Chloe Reichel

“No One Is Safe Until Everyone Is Safe” goes the rallying cry for global vaccine equity.

We would think that the COVID-19 pandemic already has made this point clear enough.

And yet, pundits are heralding the “end” of the pandemic in the U.S., all while viral variants that may be capable of evading the protection of vaccines continue to crop up both domestically and internationally.

In this Q&A, South African journalist and human rights activist Mark Heywood offers a look at the national COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa. The sobering reality there, in terms of morbidity and mortality, and in terms of expectations for the future, underscores the urgency for globally coordinated leadership and action to address the pandemic.

Our conversation from late March 2021, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

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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. 

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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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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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