Healthcare

Behind the “Package Insert”: Loophole in FDA’s Regulation of Off-Label Prescriptions

Yolanda Li, MJLST Staffer

FDA Regulation of Drug Prescription Labeling and the “Package Insert”

Over the recent years, constant efforts have been made towards regulating medical prescriptions in an attempt to reduce risks accompanied with drug prescriptions. Among those efforts is the FDA’s revision of the format of prescription drug information, commonly known as the “package insert”.[1]

The package insert regulation, effective since 2006, applies to all prescription drugs. The package insert is to provide up-to-date information on the drug in an easy-to-read format. One significant feature is a section named “highlights”, which provides the most important information regarding the benefits and risks of a prescribed medication. The highlights section is typically half a page in length providing a concise summary of information including “boxed warning”, “indications and usage”, and “dosage and administration”.[2] The highlights section also refers physicians to appropriate sections of the full prescribing information. In this way, the package insert aims to draw both the physicians’ and the patients’ attention to the prescription of a drug, consequently accomplishing the ultimate purpose of managing medication use and reducing medical errors. Mike Leavitt, the Health and Human Services Secretary of the FDA commented that the package insert “help[s] ensure safe and optimal use of drugs, which translates into better health outcomes for patients and more efficient delivery of healthcare.”[3]

FDA Regulation of Off-Label Prescription and the Emergence of a Loophole

The FDA’s regulations relating to the labeling of prescription drugs, although systematic in its form, are cut short to a certain extent due to its lack of regulation on off-label prescriptions. Off-label prescriptions do not refer to a physician prescribing non-FDA approved drugs, a common misunderstanding by the public. Rather, off-label prescriptions are those that do not conform to the FDA-approved use set out in the FDA-approved label.[4] More specifically, off-label prescription generally refers to: “(1) the practice of a physician prescribing a legally manufactured drug for purposes other than those indicated on that drug’s FDA mandated labeling; (2) using a different method of applying the treatment and prescribing a drug, device, or biologic to patient groups other than those approved by FDA; and (3) prescriptions for drug dosages that are different from the approved label-recommended dosage or for time periods exceeding the label-recommended usage.”[5] For example if Drug A’s use, as mandated by the FDA, is to treat chronic headaches, and a physician prescribes it to treat a patient’s sprained ankle, that is an off-label prescription. However, such practice is common as estimated by the American Medical Association (AMA).[6]

The commonly approach is that the FDA and courts do not to interfere with physicians’ off-label uses.[7] Thus, when the FDA regulates the labeling of approved uses but does not regulate prescriptions for off-label uses, a loophole is formed. Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., claims that because the FDA’s package insert regulation makes it easier for physicians to get access to important information about drugs, including drug safety and benefits, this regulation helps physicians to have more meaningful discussions with patients.[8] However, physicians’ discretion in prescribing off-label prescriptions would offset the proposed benefit of the FDA regulation because the regulation remains as guidance without force of law once physicians choose to go off from FDA’s approved uses of drugs. The easy-to-understand feature of the package insert and its benefit for a patient’s understanding of the drug becomes futile when physicians exercise discretion and prescribe drugs for uses not written on the inserts. In sum, when a patient receives an off-label prescription, the insert provides them little benefit as it addresses benefits and risks related to a different use of the drug.

It is undisputed that drug manufacturers have less discretion regarding drug labeling than physicians. If a manufacturer included an off-label use on a drug’s label, and promoted the off-label use of the drug, the drug would be considered misbranded. The manufacturer would then be subject to liability[9] as manufacturing a misbranded product in interstate commerce is prohibited.[10] However, the effect of regulations on manufacturers still fail to eliminate the loophole in off-label prescription: in response to the regulations, the manufacturer usually receives FDA approval for only a few drug uses and then relies on physicians prescribing off-label uses to ensure their profitability.[11] In this way, the manufacturer avoids liability under regulation and furthers the loophole in off-label prescription by encouraging physicians to prescribe more off-label uses in order to expand the manufacturer’s market.[12]

Why are Off-Label Prescriptions Difficult to Regulate?

One of the main reasons behind the lack of regulation of off-label prescriptions is the FDA’s objective in ensuring effective delivery of health care. Physicians are encouraged to use discretion and judgment in order to tailor prescription to patients’ individual conditions.[13] Another reason is to increase efficiency in treatments by avoiding the lengthy FDA approval process.[14] Aspirin was widely prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack long before it was FDA-approved for this purpose; off-label prescriptions have also been proven effective in treatment of cancer, and off-label therapies have prolonged the lives of AIDS patients.[15] Another concern is drug prices in the United States, and promoting off-label uses has been found to help reduce drug prices as increased sales volume enables drug companies to lower their prices.[16] Indeed, off-label prescription has become a mainstream of medicine: “the FDA has long tolerated off-label drug use and has disclaimed any interest in regulating physicians’ prescribing practices.”[17] Today it is unclear whether the agency even has jurisdiction to regulate off-label prescription of drugs.[18]

In sum, there is clear guidance on the labeling of prescription drugs as a result of FDA regulation. However, because of difficulties in enforcement, the custom and widely accepted practice of off-label prescriptions and the inherent benefit of off-label prescription, the effects of the regulation are not as effective as what was firstly planned and proposed.

Notes

[1] The FDA Announces New Prescription Drug Information Format, U.S. Food & Drug Adm’ (Dec. 04 2015) https://www.fda.gov/drugs/laws-acts-and-rules/fda-announces-new-prescription-drug-information-format.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Margaret Z. Johns, Informed Consent: Requiring Doctors to Disclose Off-Label Prescriptions and Conflicts of Interest, 58 Hastings L.J. 967, 968 https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=35364c11-2939-4e58-bceb-dab7ae8f0154&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A4P0W-GY20-00CW-906B-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=7341&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[5] Lisa E. Smilan, The off-label loophole in the psychopharmacologic setting: prescription of antipsychotic drugs in the nonpsychotic patient population, 30 Health Matrix 233, 240 (2020), https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=367cf8ad-295e-4f14-97fa-737618718d61&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A64BT-RR31-JWBS-61KV-00000-00&pdworkfolderid=5506aeec-9540-4837-89f0-5a1acfd81d8b&pdopendocfromfolder=true&prid=1d42abd0-b66e-43af-a61a-0d1fb94180f5&ecomp=gdgg&earg=5506aeec-9540-4837-89f0-5a1acfd81d8b#.

[6] Supra note 4.

[7] Sigma-Tau Pharms. v. Schwetz, 288 F.3d 141, 148, https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=7d2a2b00-13ad-4953-968e-82a28724aa00&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fcases%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A45RF-5H50-0038-X1PB-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=6388&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[8] Supra note 1.

[9] 21 CFR 201.5, https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=e02a99fb-be65-4525-b83c-a167f3e21b93&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fadministrative-codes%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A603K-BXD1-DYB7-W30Y-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=5154&pdworkfolderlocatorid=NOT_SAVED_IN_WORKFOLDER&prid=ff2b7e20-9dab-49b0-8385-627c16ee0ba2&ecomp=vfbtk&earg=sr2.

[10] 21 CFR 801.4, https://plus.lexis.com/document/?pdmfid=1530671&crid=721a586d-52a4-4228-b0c3-c464a77d6e6a&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fadministrative-codes%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A638R-X4S3-GXJ9-32FV-00000-00&pdcontentcomponentid=5154&pdworkfolderlocatorid=NOT_SAVED_IN_WORKFOLDER&prid=ff2b7e20-9dab-49b0-8385-627c16ee0ba2&ecomp=vfbtk&earg=sr6.

[11]  Supra note 4.

[12] Id.

[13]   Supra note 7.

[14]   Supra note 4.

[15]  Id.

[16] Supra note 4, at 981.

[17] ​​Kaspar J. Stoffelmayr, Products Liability And “Off-label” Uses Of Prescription Drugs, 63 U. Chi. L. Rev. 275, 279, https://plus.lexis.com/document?crid=a2181ffc-7f3e-4bce-b82e-08ba9111194f&pddocfullpath=%2Fshared%2Fdocument%2Fanalytical-materials%2Furn%3AcontentItem%3A3S3V-4CF0-00CV-K03W-00000-00&pdsourcegroupingtype=&pdcontentcomponentid=7358&pdmfid=1530671&pdisurlapi=true.

[18]  Id.


Predicted Effects of Price Transparency on Healthcare Economics

David Edholm, MJLST Staffer

In 2019, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) promulgated the Price Transparency Rule in order to allow patients to access healthcare pricing information. The stated purpose of the Price Transparency Rule is as follows:

By disclosing hospital standard charges [including payer-specific negotiated charges and discounted-cash prices], we believe the public (including patients, employers, clinicians, and other third parties) will have the information necessary to make more informed decisions about their care. We believe the impact of these final policies will help to increase market competition, and ultimately drive down the cost of healthcare services, making them more affordable for all patients.

There is significant debate whether compliance with the Price Transparency Rule will actuate its intended purpose.

On the proponent side, economic theory to support this purpose statement comes from a market advocacy perspective. In order to drive down the cost of healthcare through competition, consumers must know the prices in advance in order to bargain between providers. By giving consumers the ability to shop around and barter, the thinking goes, providers will undercut competitors by lowering their own prices, even slightly below a competitor’s rate.

Another theory that supports price transparency is that shining light onto healthcare pricing will lead to more public outcry, guilting providers to lower overinflated or unconscionable gross charges or hospital fees. Public outcry may also compel states to create global healthcare budget caps, which have been shown to have positive price-lowering effects. A recent study from Rice University found that Maryland’s all-payer global budget policy reduces costs while increasing quality of care.

Skeptics of the rule, however, including the American Hospital Association (AHA), argue that price transparency will induce institutions that currently charge less than competitors to increase their prices to match their competitors, ultimately raising costs. In litigation, the DC Circuit responded to that argument, holding that, based on available research, this result is unlikely. Secretary Azar was not required to rely on definitive rather than predictive data in writing the requirements because of the novelty of the price disclosure scheme and the unique complexity of healthcare pricing. The DC Circuit held that relying on studies of similar price disclosure schemes in other industries was sufficient to inform a stable policy judgment.

However, the healthcare service market is of a unique nature in that quality of care may be a consumer’s primary consideration before seeking treatment, trumping price considerations. Alternatively, a consumer may assume that paying more means receiving higher-quality care. Quality of care is incredibly hard to measure and report, and unless a consumer has access to quality-of-care information alongside pricing information, they are more likely to make fallacious assumptions about this correlation. Another unique factor about healthcare shopping is that many consumers have a strong relationship with their physician, thus would base their decision primarily on receiving advice from one they trust, rather than the out-of-pocket cost of care, especially if the difference is negligible.

Last is the complexity of healthcare viewpoint. Opponents of the price transparency rule emphasize the nature of healthcare as an unpredictable trade. For example, if a patient consumer undergoes surgery to fix one problem, a surgeon may discover another problem amidst the procedure. The standard of care likely prompts the surgeon to correct both problems, thus the patient consumer will be charged an amount higher than they could have reasonably predicted. The AHA brought this argument to court to support its assertion that the price transparency rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by overstating the rule’s benefits. The DC Circuit court responded that the rule did not require hospitals to publish every potential permutation of finalized charges, rather that the baseline charges are publicized. Thus, in the surgery scenario, a patient consumer should have access to the payer-negotiated rate to fix the initial problem.

The jury is out, so to speak, on the effects that Price Transparency Rule compliance will have on healthcare economics. But from a consumer perspective, rapidly increasing healthcare costs are at the forefront of relevant political issues.


Build Back Better Act: A Request for Transparency of a Clearly Visible Issue

Sara Pistilli, MJLST Staffer

On November 19, 2021, the House of Representatives voted to pass the “Build Back Better Act” which includes several provisions aimed at ever-rising healthcare prices. In trying to combat this concern, Congress included mandatory reporting provisions for pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) who bill Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs. PBMs will be required to provide reports every six months that include data on copays, dispensed drugs, rebates, and total out of pocket spending for patients. Speaker Nancy Pelosi states these provisions are aimed at “providing transparency regarding drug costs in private health plans” but is transparency helpful or even necessary when the effects PBMs have on healthcare costs are well known?

What is a PBM?

PBMs are third-party administrators that manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of both private and public healthcare payers. They have significant power to manipulate the healthcare market by acting as middlemen between payers (insurance companies), drug manufacturers, and dispensers (pharmacies). Originally, PBMs were meant to lower healthcare costs by streamlining transactions and attempting to create fair payment systems for dispensing pharmacies.Instead, PBMs have secretly contributed to increasing healthcare costs by inflating drug costs while concurrently decreasing pharmacy reimbursement rates leading to huge windfall profits for PBMs at the patients’ expense.

How do PBMs make millions in profits each year?

While some patients pay cash for medications, most are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurers. PBMs are paid by these insurers to determine how much a healthcare plan pays for a medication and in turn, how much the pharmacy gets reimbursed for the dispensed medication. For example, Bob receives a new prescription from his doctor for drug A. The pharmacy buys a bottle of drug A for $7. When Bob comes to pick up his prescription for drug A, his health insurer’s PBM pays $8 to reimburse the pharmacy, allowing them to gain a profit of $1. Concurrently, the PBM bills the health insurer $18 for the price of drug A, allowing them to make $10 in profit on Bob’s prescription. This practice, called spread pricing, results in PBMs making millions of dollars in profits each year.

BBBPicture1

Picture: “The Secret Drug Pricing System Middlemen Use to Rake in Millions

How does PBM spread pricing increase healthcare costs for patients?

PBM spread pricing affects healthcare costs in two distinct ways: increased insurance premiums and decreased access to care. As PBMs continue to inflate the cost of prescription drugs, insurers are billed more and more by their PBMs. These expenses directly fall on the shoulders of the government and the healthcare companies, who represent the public and private payer sector. In turn, to keep up with increased billing, public and private payers turn to their beneficiaries to help them pay the PBMs via increased healthcare plan premiums, decreased coverage, and larger copays. Concurrently, as the PBMs reimburse pharmacies less and less for medication dispensing, pharmacies, especially independent ones, try to operate on thinner profit margins. Over time, the low reimbursement rates culminate in decreased clinical services or, in the worst case, pharmacies closing permanently.

What does the Build Back Better Act do to help?

Egregious billing practices by PBMs have been in the spotlight for several years now. In 2018, Ohio’s Department of Medicaid released a report showing that PBMs charged the state of Ohio $224 million in hidden spread pricing. The audit results led to Ohio terminating all PBM contracts with the Department of Medicaid and converting to a single-PBM system where spread pricing could be monitored better. Another report, this time in Utah, showed that PBM’s received $1.5 million from spread pricing in 2018. Similarly in 2019, a Kentucky report found that PBMs retained $123 million in spread pricing in that state. Several states have enacted laws targeting PBM spread pricing as the federal government continues to skirt around the issue. For example, Louisiana prohibits all PBMs from using spread pricing unless a PBM provides written notice of the practice to the health insurer and the policy holder. Louisiana also enacted a law stating that PBMs could not reimburse pharmacies at a lower rate than they do their affiliated pharmacies. This directly targets suspicions that CVS Caremark reimburses CVS pharmacies more to eliminate competition and steer patients towards filling their medications at CVS pharmacies. Like Louisiana, Maine enacted a law stating that PBMs could not participate in spread pricing without proper notice to the state. On October 1st, 2021, North Carolina’s Senate Bill 257 will take effect. This bill requires PBMs to apply for business licenses with the Commissioner of the Department of Insurance, subjecting them to more spread pricing regulations and threats of restitution to pharmacies they reimburse unfairly. While the states’ efforts are not perfect solutions, they are necessary efforts to regulate PBMs more. The federal government’s efforts to increase transparency is unnecessary due to the public recognition of PBM spread pricing. Every state audit that shows gross spread pricing is transparent enough to alert the federal government that PBMs pose a widespread problem to our healthcare system without greater restrictions. PBMs need to be controlled directly through regulations targeted towards preventing and prohibiting spread pricing, rather than asked to report every six months just how much they profit off their deceptive billing practices.


You Wouldn’t 3D Print Tylenol, Would You?

By Mason Medeiros, MJLST Staffer

3D printing has the potential to change the medical field. As improvements are made to 3D printing systems and new uses are allocated, medical device manufacturers are using them to improve products and better provide for consumers. This is commonly seen through consumer use of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs and orthopedic implants. Many researchers are also using 3D printing technology to generate organs for transplant surgeries. By utilizing the technology, manufacturers can lower costs while making products tailored to the needs of the consumer. This concept can also be applied to the creation of drugs. By utilizing 3D printing, drug manufacturers and hospitals can generate medication that is tailored to the individual metabolic needs of the consumer, making the medicine safer and more effective. This potential, however, is limited by FDA regulations.

3D-printed drugs have the potential to make pill and tablet-based drugs safer and more effective for consumers. Currently, when a person picks up their prescription the drug comes in a set dose (for example, Tylenol tablets commonly come in doses of 325 or 500 mg per tablet). Because the pills come in these doses, it limits the amount that can be taken to multiples of these numbers. While this will create a safe and effective response in most people, what if your drug metabolism requires a different dose to create maximum effectiveness?

Drug metabolism is the process where drugs are chemically transformed into a substance that is easier to excrete from the body. This process primarily happens in the kidney and is influenced by various factors such as genetics, age, concurrent medications, and certain health conditions. The rate of drug metabolism can have a major impact on the safety and efficacy of drugs. If drugs are metabolized too slowly it can increase the risk of side effects, but if they are metabolized too quickly the drug will not be as effective. 3D printing the drugs can help minimize these problems by printing drugs with doses that match an individual’s metabolic needs, or by printing drugs in structures that affect the speed that the tablet dissolves. These individualized tablets could be printed at the pharmacy and provided straight to the consumer. However, doing so will force pharmacies and drug companies to deal with additional regulatory hurdles.

Pharmacies that 3D print drugs will be forced to comply with Current Good Manufacturing Procedures (CGMPs) as determined by the FDA. See 21 C.F.R. § 211 (2020). CGMPs are designed to ensure that drugs are manufactured safely to protect the health of consumers. Each pharmacy will need to ensure that the printers’ design conforms to the CGMPs, periodically test samples of the drugs for safety and efficacy, and conform to various other regulations. 21 C.F.R. § 211.65, 211.110 (2020). These additional safety precautions will place a larger strain on pharmacies and potentially harm the other services that they provide.

Additionally, the original drug developers will be financially burdened. When pharmacies 3D print the medication, they will become a new manufacturing location. Additionally, utilizing 3D printing technology will lead to a change in the manufacturing process. These changes will require the original drug developer to update their New Drug Application (NDA) that declared the product as safe and effective for use. Updating the NDA will be a costly process that will further be complicated by the vast number of new manufacturing locations that will be present. Because each pharmacy that decides to 3D print the medicine on-site will be a manufacturer, and because it is unlikely that all pharmacies will adopt 3D printing at the same time, drug developers will constantly need to update their NDA to ensure compliance with FDA regulations. Although these regulatory hurdles seem daunting, the FDA can take steps to mitigate the work needed by the pharmacies and manufacturers.

The FDA should implement a regulatory exception for pharmacies that 3D print drugs. The exemption should allow pharmacies to avoid some CGMPs for manufacturing and allow pharmacies to proceed without being registered as a manufacturer for each drug they are printing. One possibility is to categorize 3D-printed drugs as a type of compounded drug. This will allow pharmacies that 3D print drugs to act under section 503A of the Food Drug & Cosmetic Act. Under this section, the pharmacies would not need to comply with CGMPs or premarket approval requirements. The pharmacies, however, will need to comply with the section 503A requirements such as having the printing be performed by a licensed pharmacist in a state-licensed pharmacy or by a licensed physician, limiting the interstate distribution of the drugs to 5%, only printing from bulk drugs manufactured by FDA licensed establishments and only printing drugs “based on the receipt of a valid prescription for an individualized patient”. Although this solution limits the situations where 3D prints drugs can be made, it will allow the pharmacies to avoid the additional time and cost that would otherwise be required while helping ensure the safety of the drugs.

This solution would be beneficial for the pharmacies wishing to 3D print drugs, but it comes with some drawbacks. One of the main drawbacks is that there is no adverse event reporting requirement under section 503A. This will likely make it harder to hold pharmacies accountable for dangerous mistakes. Another issue is that pharmacies registered as an outsourcing facility under section 503B of the FD&C Act will not be able to avoid conforming to CGMPs unless they withdraw their registration. This issue, however, could be solved by an additional exemption from CGMPs for 3D-printed drugs. Even with these drawbacks, including 3D-printed drugs under the definition of compounded drugs proposes a relatively simple way to ease the burden on pharmacies that wish to utilize this new technology.

3D printing drugs has the opportunity to change the medical drug industry. The 3D-printed drugs can be specialized for the individual needs of the patient, making them safer and more effective for each person. For this to occur, however, the FDA needs to create an exemption for these pharmacies by including 3D-printed drugs under the definition of compounded drugs.


I’ve Been Shot! Give Me a Donut!: Linking Vaccine Verification Apps to Existing State Immunization Registries

Ian Colby, MJLST Staffer

The gold rush for vaccination appointments is in full swing. After Governor Walz and many other governors announced an acceleration of vaccine eligibility in their states, the newly eligible desperately sought vaccinations to help the world achieve herd immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus (“COVID”) and get back to normal life.

The organization administering a person’s initial dose typically gives the recipient an approximately 4” x 3” card that provides the vaccine manufacturer, the date and location of inoculation, and the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) logo. The CDC website does not specify what, exactly, this card is for. Likely reasons include informing the patient about the healthcare they just received, a reminder card for a second dose, or providing batch numbers in case a manufacturing issue arises. Maybe they did it for the ‘Gram. However, regardless of the CDC’s reason for the card, many news outlets have latched onto the most likely future use for them: as a passport to get the post-pandemic party started.

Airlines, sports venues, schools, and donut shops are desperate to return to safe mass gatherings and close contact, without needing to enforce as many protective measures. These organizations, in the short-term, will likely seek assurance of a person’s vaccination status. Aside from the equitable and scientific issues with requiring this assurance, these business will likely get “proof” with these CDC vaccination cards. The cardboard and ink security of these cards rivals social security cards in the “high importance – zero protection” category. Warnings of scammers providing blank CDC cards or stealing the vaccinated person’s name and birthdate hit the web last week (No scammers needed: you can get Missouri’s PDF to print one for free).

With so little security, but with a business-need to reopen the economy to vaccinated folks, businesses and governments have turned to digital vaccine passports. Generically named “digital health passes,” these apps will allow a person to show proof of their vaccination status securely. They “provide a path to reviving the economy and getting Americans back to work and play” according to a New York Times article. “For any such certificate or passport to work, it is going to need two things – access to a country’s official records of vaccinations and a secure method of identifying an individual and linking them to their health record.”

A variety of sources have undertaken development of these digital health passes, both governments and private firms. Israel already provides a nationwide digital proof of vaccination known as a Green Pass. Denmark followed suit with the Coronapas. In addition, a number of private companies and nonprofits are vying to become the preeminent vaccine status app for the world’s smartphones. While governments, such as Israel, have preexisting authority to access immunization and identification records, private firms do not. Private firms would require authorization to access your medical records.

So, in the United States, who would run these apps? Not the U.S. federal government. The Biden Administration unequivocally denied that it would ever require vaccine status checks, and would not keep a vaccination database. The federal government does not need to, though. Most states already manage a digital vaccination database, pursuant to laws authorizing them. Every other state, which doesn’t directly authorize them, still maintains a digital database anyway. These immunization information systems (“IIS”) provide quick access to a person’s vaccination status. A state’s resident can make a request for their vaccination status on myriad vaccinations for free and receive the results via email. Texas and Florida, who made big hubbubs about restricting any use of vaccine passports, both have registries to provide proof of vaccination. So does New York, who has already published an app, known as the Excelsior Pass, that does this for the COVID vaccine. The State’s app pulls information from New York’s immunization registry, providing a quick, simple yes-no result for those requiring proof. The app uses IBM’s blockchain technology, which is “designed to enable the secure verification of health credentials such as test results and vaccination records without the need to share underlying medical and personal information.”

With so many options, consumers of vaccine status apps could become overwhelmed. A vaccinated person may need to download innumerable apps to enter myriad activities. “Fake” apps could ask for additional medical information from the unwary. Private app developers may try to justify continued use of the app after the need for COVID vaccination proof passes.

In this competitive atmosphere, apps that partner with state governments likely provide the best form of digital vaccination verification. These apps have direct approval from the states that are required by law to maintain these vaccination records. They provide some authority to avoid scams. And cooperation to achieve state standardization of these apps may facilitate greater use. States seeking to reopen their economies should authorize digital interfaces with their pre-existing immunization registries. Now that the gold rush for vaccinations has started, the gold rush for vaccine passports is something to keep an eye on.

 


Intellectual Property in Crisis: Does SARS-CoV-2 Warrant Waiving TRIPS?

Daniel Walsh, MJLST Staffer

The SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes the disease COVID-19) has been a massive challenge to public health causing untold human suffering. Multiple vaccines and biotechnologies have been developed to combat the virus at a record pace, enabled by innovations in biotechnology. These technologies, vaccines in particular, represent the clearest path towards ending the pandemic. Governments have invested heavily in vaccine development. In May 2020 the United States made commitments to purchase, at the time, untested vaccines. These commitments were intended to indemnify the manufacture of vaccines allowing manufacturing to begin before regulatory approval was received from the Food and Drug Administration. The United States was not alone. China and Germany, just to name two, contributed heavily to funding the development of biotechnology in response to the pandemic. It is clear that both private and public institutions contributed heavily to the speed with which biotechnology has been developed in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. However, there are criticisms that the public-private partnerships underlying vaccine manufacturing and distribution have been opaque. The contracts between governments and manufacturers are highly secretive, and contain clauses that disadvantage the developing world, for example forbidding the donation of extra vaccine doses.

Advanced biotechnology necessarily implicates intellectual property (IP) protections. Patents are the clearest example of this. Patents protect what is colloquially thought of as inventions or technological innovations. However, other forms of IP also have their place. Computer code, for example, can be subject to copyright protection. A therapy’s brand name might be subject to a trademark. Trade secrets can be used to protect things like clinical trial data needed for regulatory approval. IP involved in the pandemic is not limited to technologies developed directly in response to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2. Moderna, for example, has a variety of patents filed prior to the pandemic that protect its SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. IP necessarily restricts access, however, and in the context of the pandemic this has garnered significant criticism. Critics have argued that IP protections should be suspended or relaxed to expand access to lifesaving biotechnology. The current iteration of this debate is not unique; there is a perennial debate about whether it should be possible to obtain IP which could restrict access to medical therapies. Many nations have exceptions that limit IP rights for things like medical procedures. See, e.g., 35 U.S.C. 287(c).

In response to these concerns the waiver of a variety of IP protections has been proposed at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In October 2020 India and South Africa filed a communication proposing “a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) sets minimum standards for IP standards, acquisition, and enforcement and creates an intergovernmental dispute resolution process for member states. Charles R. McManis, Intellectual Property and International Mergers and Acquisitions, 66 U. Cin. L. Rev. 1283, 1288 (1998). It is necessary to accede to TRIPS in order to join the WTO, but membership in the WTO has significant benefits, especially for developing nations. “Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 . . .” relate to the protection of copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and trade secrets respectively. Waiver would permit nation states to provide intellectual property protections “in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19” that fall below the minimum standard set by the TRIPs Agreement. At time of writing, 10 nations have cosponsored this proposal.

This proposal has been criticized as unnecessary. There is an argument that patents will not enter effect until after the current crisis is resolved, implying they will have no preclusive effect. However, as previously mentioned, it is a matter of fact that preexisting patents apply to therapies that are being used to treat SARS-CoV-2. Repurposing is common in the field of biotechnology where existing therapies are often repurposed or used as platforms, as is the case with mRNA vaccines. However, it is true that therapies directly developed in response to the pandemic are unlikely to be under patent protection in the near future given lag between filing for and receiving a patent. Others argue that if investors perceive biotech as an area where IP rights are likely to be undermined in the event of an emergency, it will reduce marginal investment in vaccine and biotech therapies. Finally, critics argue that the proposal ignores the existing mechanisms in the TRIPS Agreement that would allow compulsory licensing of therapies that nations feel are unavailable. Supporters of the status quo argue that voluntary licensing agreements can serve the needs of developing nations while preserving the investments in innovation made by larger economies.

The waiver sponsors respond that a wholesale waiver would permit greater flexibility in the face of the crisis, and be a more proportionate response to the scale of the emergency. They also assert that the preexisting compulsory licensing provisions are undermined by lobbying against compulsory licensing by opponents of the waiver, though it is unlikely that this lobbying would cease even if a waiver were passed. The sponsors also argue that the public investment implies that any research products are a public good and should therefore be free to the public.

It is unclear how the current debate on TRIPS will be resolved. The voluntary licensing agreements might end up abrogating the need for a wholesale waiver of IP protections in practice rendering the debate moot. However, the WTO should consider taking up the issue of IP protections in a crisis after the current emergency is over. The current debate is a reflection of a larger underlying disagreement about the terms of the TRIPS Agreement. Further, uncertainty about the status of IP rights in emergencies can dissuade investment in the same way as erosion of IP rights, implying that society may pay the costs of decreased investment without reaping any of the benefits.

 


How the U.S. Government Broke Its Treaty Obligations Before the Pandemic Struck: COVID-19 illuminates how the U.S. government have failed Native communities

Ingrid Hofeldt, MJLST Staffer

As COVID-19 first began to ravage Native American tribal lands, the U.S. government’s treaty-solidified responsibility to protect tribes against external disasters was triggered. However, Native American communities’ reluctance to receive vaccinations showcases how the U.S. government’s treaty obligations require it to take proactive steps to ensure the advancement of healthcare on tribal lands and to attempt to mend the longstanding medical trauma of Native communities and resulting friction with the U.S. government.

Healthcare Disparities Before COVID-19

Since the invasion of Europeans, Native American communities have faced health crises. The European invaders both inadvertently spread smallpox, measles, and the flu, and launched biological warfare against Native communities. Around 90% of Native peoples were murdered or died through the spread of disease. Even after the most egregious periods of the genocide against Native Americans, indigenous communities continued to experience disparities in health outcomes. During the 1918 pandemic, the influenza struck Native populations with four times the severity of the general population, which resulted in 2% of Native peoples dying, and the near extinction of entire villages. 

Today, Native American communities continue to face disparities in health outcomes. Native Americans  have above average rates of immunocompromising diseases including diabetes, asthma, heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, hypertension, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Native Americans are 600 times more likely than non-Native people to die of tuberculosis and 200 times more likely to die of diabetes. These rates exist in part because of the lack of resources available on reservations, which are home to 50% of the U.S. Native American population. Limited healthcare services, overcrowded housing, and lack of access to running water, proper sewage, and broadband internet[1] on reservations all contribute to reduced healthcare outcomes. A burgeoning elderly population, a quarter of whom lack health insurance, also adds to the difficulties facing Native healthcare services and tribal governments. 

The Crisis of COVID-19 for Native American communities and Reservations

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has spread across reservations like wildfire. Navajo Nation has had more deaths per capita than any state in the country. While Native Americans comprise 3% of Wyoming’s population and 6% of Arizona’s, they represent 33% and 16% of COVID-19 cases respectively. These disparities have emerged for a variety of reasons, from the higher rates of pre-existing conditions discussed above, which each exacerbate the severity and lethality of COVID-19, to lack of healthcare resources. Reservations experience the same shortages of doctors, hospitals, and medical resources common among rural areas. Additionally, limited grocery stores and multigenerational housing increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Beyond these existing disparities and lack of resources, the federal government’s mismanagement of resources designated for Native American communities has worsened the crisis of COVID-19 on reservations. While Congress distributed $80 million in COVID-19 relief funds to the Indian Health Services, 98% of tribal clinics have still not received their funds because of the federal government’s failure to properly disperse the funds. Testing has been largely absent from reservations, which causes cases to go unreported. Additionally, the federal government used census data, rather than tribal enrollment data,  to calculate distribution of resources in reservations. Because Native people are hugely undercounted in the census, reservations have received inadequate supplies of PPE, cleaning supplies, and tests. For example, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians only received 2 test kits for a population of 44,000. Meanwhile, the Seattle Indian Health Board was sent body bags in lieu of medical supplies

The U.S. Government’s Responsibility to Tribes

The U.S. government’s actions and inactions run afoul of multiple treaties, established case law, and the central tenants of Indian law. Numerous treaties between the U.S. government and tribal nations established tribes as sovereign political nations that the U.S. government must protect from external threats, ranging from foreign invasion to natural disasters. The Supreme Court has affirmed the dual sovereignty of tribal nations and the U.S. government’s obligations to tribes. 

Treaties between tribes and the U.S. government have both established this broad principle of the government’s responsibility to ensure the health and wellbeing of Native peoples and provided specific responsibilities requiring the U.S. government to provide vaccines, medicine, and physicians to Native peoples on reservations. In theory, the land tribes ceded to the U.S. government was a form of pre-payment for adequate healthcare. In 1955, the U.S. government established the Indian Health Services (IHS), to ensure that the U.S. government met its implied responsibility to ensure the adequate healthcare of Native peoples. Congress has also conceded that the U.S. government has a responsibility to “improve the services and facilities of Federal Indian health programs and encourage maximum participation of Indians” in those programs, which “the Federal Government’s historical and unique legal relationship with, and resulting responsibility to the American Indian people” requires. Congress has recognized that the current unmet health needs of tribes are “severe” and implicate “all other Federal services and programs in fulfillment of the Federal responsibility to Indians” which are “jeopardized by the low health status of the American Indian people.” 

How the U.S. Government Has Violated Its Treaty Obligations During the COVID-19 Crisis

As the U.S. government charges forward with the COVID-19 vaccination program, the COVID-19 healthcare disparities and the long history of medical trauma in Indian country compound one another. Many Native Americans living on reservations express skepticism over the vaccine program given the genocide committed against Native peoples through medicine and the government’s current mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. Currently, an estimated 50% of people on the Spirit Lake Reservation do not plan to receive vaccinations. While the government spent centuries committing biological warfare against Native peoples, the medical community has enacted great harm against Native people relatively recently. Within the past 100 years, the U.S. government has conducted testing of radioactive iodine on Alaska Natives and widely distributed vaccines that proved less effective or ineffective for Native people. In the 1970’s, the U.S. government mass sterilized Native Americans without their consent. Further, in 2009, the U.S. government mishandled the H1N1 crisis on reservations, exacerbating this existing lack of trust. 

The tenuous relationship between tribes and the government has only worsened during the COVID-19 crisis as a result of the mismanagement of tribal healthcare. Many Native people worry that the federal government is withholding the risks of the COVID-19 vaccine. Native healthcare providers stress that the U.S. government must work to cultivate community support for its healthcare initiatives and ensure informed consent from each Native person for any medical procedure. The longstanding, positive relationship between Johns Hopkins University medical researchers and the Navajo people is a testament to the benefits of long standing relationships between tribes and researchers built on trust.

In light of the long history of healthcare issues and violations on reservations, the current mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis on reservations, and the fear of vaccination in many tribal communities, it becomes clear that the U.S. government’s treaty obligations related to healthcare must be rethought, recalibrated, and redefined. The U.S. government should not merely intervene when a pandemic strikes, but should take proactive, constructive steps before crisis strikes to ensure that Native peoples will receive adequate healthcare during both normal times and widespread calamities. It was no secret to the government that a pandemic would prove disastrous for tribes: public health experts have long foreshadowed the severity of a pandemic for tribal populations. Merely throwing money at tribes once disaster strikes will not solve the longstanding health and healthcare issues on reservations that complicate the virus. 

 Funds alone cannot solve the complex, socio-political healthcare issues complicated by historical trauma. Beyond dispersing funds through IHS, the U.S. government should consider organizing focus groups on reservations between elders, traditional healers, tribal government leaders, and immunologists from the CDC and public health officials to discuss steps moving forward. Additionally, to ensure treaty obligations, the U.S. government must tackle the more difficult long standing issues such as the lack of agency tribes hold over medical research and the distrust between the federal government and Native communities. To achieve equitable healthcare for tribes, Native people cannot merely be pushed to the sidelines as participants or involved minimally as nurses and doctors but not as researchers. The federal government should use funds to ensure that young Native Americans have available programming on science, STEM careers, and pathways into medicine. While not a conclusive end to the medical trauma Native communities have experienced, providing partnerships in medical research to researchers from Native communities will hopefully both shed a spotlight on healthcare disparities within Native communities and rebuild the frayed and broken trust between Native communities and medical researchers. 

Regardless of what steps are taken, the strength and organizing of Native communities during the COVID-19 pandemic deserves recognition. In the words of Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation president, “We are resilient . . . our ancestors got us to this point . . .  now it is our turn to fight hard against this virus.”

 

[1] 13% of American Indian/Alaska Native homes lack running water or sewage compared to 1% of homes nationwide. In the Navajo Nation, ⅓ of homes lack running water.


FDA Approval of a SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine and Surrogate Endpoints

Daniel Walsh, Ph.D, MJLST Staffer

The emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has thrown the world into chaos, taking the lives of more than a million worldwide to date. Infection with SARS-CoV-2 causes the disease COVID-19, which can have severe health consequences even for those that do not succumb. An unprecedented number of vaccines are under development to address this challenge. The goal for any vaccine is sterilizing immunity, which means viral infection is outright prevented. However, a vaccine that provides only partially protective immunity will still be a useful tool in fighting the virus. Either outcome would reduce the ability of the virus to spread, and hopefully reduce the incidence of severe disease in those who catch the virus. An effective vaccine is our best shot at ending the pandemic quickly.

For any vaccine to become widely available in the United States, it must first gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Under normal circumstances a sponsor (drug manufacturer) seeking regulatory approval would submit an Investigational New Drug (IND) application, perform clinical trials to gather data on safety and efficacy, and finally file a Biologics License Application (BLA) if the trials were successful. The FDA will review the clinical trial data and make a determination as to whether the benefits of the therapy outweigh the risks, and if appropriate, approve the BLA. Of course, degree of morbidity and mortality being caused by COVID-19 places regulators in a challenging position. If certain prerequisites are met, the FDA as the authority to approve a vaccine using an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). As pertaining to safety and efficacy, the statutory requirements for issuing an EUA are lower than normal approval. It should also be noted that an initial approval via EUA does not preclude eventual normal approval.  Full approval of the antiviral drug remdisivir is an example of this occurrence.

In any specific instance, the FDA must conclude that a reason for using the EUA process (in this case SARS-CoV-2):

can cause a serious or life-threatening disease or condition . . . based on the totality of scientific evidence available . . . including data from adequate and well-controlled clinical trials, if available, it is reasonable to believe that . . . the product may be effective in diagnosing, treating, or preventing [SARS-CoV-2] . . . the known and potential benefits of the product, when used to diagnose, prevent, or treat [SARS-CoV-2], outweigh the known and potential risks of the product . . . .

21 USC 360bbb-3(c). On its face, this statute does not require the FDA to adhere to the full phased clinical trial protocol in grating an EUA approval. Of course, the FDA is free to ask for more than the bare minimum, and it has wisely done so by issuing a set of guidance documents in June and October. The FDA indicated that, at the minimum, a sponsor would need to supply an “interim analysis of a clinical endpoint from a phase 3 efficacy study;” that the vaccine should demonstrate an efficacy of at least 50% in a placebo controlled trial; that phase 1 and 2 safety data should be provided; and that the phase 3 data “should include a median follow-up duration of at least two months after completion of the full vaccination regimen” (among other requirements) in the October guidance.

It is clear from these requirements that the FDA is still requiring sponsors to undertake phase 1, 2, and 3 trials before FDA will consider issuing an EUA, but that the FDA is not going to wait for the trials to reach long term safety and efficacy endpoints, in an effort to get the public access to a vaccine in a reasonable time frame. The Moderna vaccine trial protocol, for example, has a study period of over two years. The FDA also has a statutory obligation to “efficiently review[] clinical research and take[] appropriate action . . . in a timely manner.” 21 USC § 393(b)(1).

One method of speeding up the FDA’s assessment of efficacy is a surrogate endpoint. Surrogate endpoints allow the FDA to look at an earlier, predictive metric of efficacy in a clinical trial when it would be impractical or unethical to follow the trial to its actual clinical endpoint. For example, we often use blood pressure as a surrogate endpoint when evaluating drugs intended to treat stroke. The FDA draws a distinction between candidate, reasonably likely, and validated surrogate endpoints. The latter two can be used to expedite approval. However, in its June guidance, the FDA noted “[t]here are currently no accepted surrogate endpoints that are reasonably likely to predict clinical benefit of a COVID-19 vaccine . . . .  [and sponsors should therefore] pursue traditional approval via direct evidence of vaccine safety and efficacy . . . .” This makes it unlikely surrogate endpoints will play any role in the initial EUAs or BLAs for any SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.

However, as the science around the virus develops the FDA might adopt a surrogate endpoint as it has for many other infectious diseases. Looking through this list of surrogate endpoints, a trend is clear. For vaccines, the FDA has always used antibodies as a surrogate endpoint. However, the durability of the antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 has been an object of much concern. While this concern is likely somewhat overstated (it is normal for antibody levels to fall after an infection is cleared), there is evidence that T-cells are long lasting after infection with SARS-CoV-1, and likely play an important role in immunity to SARS-CoV-2. It is important to note that T-Cells (which coordinate the immune response and some of which can kill virally infected cells) and B-Cells (which produce antibody proteins) are both fundamental, and interdependent pieces of the immune system. With this in mind, when developing surrogate endpoints for SARS-CoV-2 the FDA should consider whether it is open to a more diverse set of surrogate endpoints in the future, and if so, the FDA should communicate this to sponsors so they can begin to build the infrastructure necessary to collect the data to ensure vaccines can be approved quickly.

 


It’s a Small World, and Getting Smaller: The Need for Global Health Security

Madeline Vavricek, MJLST Staffer

The word “unprecedented” has been used repeatedly by every news organization and government official throughout the last several months. Though the times that we live in may be unprecedented, they are far from being statistically impossible—or even statistically unlikely. Based on the most recent implementation of the International Health Regulations released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005, more than 70% of the world is deemed unprepared to prevent, detect, and respond to a public health emergency. The reality of this statistic was evidenced by the widespread crisis of COVID-19. As of September 29, 2020, the global COVID-19 death toll passed one million lives, with many regions still reporting surging numbers of new infections. Experts caution that the actual figure could be up to 10 times higher.

The impact of COVID-19 has made pandemic preparedness paramount in a way modern times have yet to experience. While individual countries look inward towards their own national response to the coronavirus, it is apparent now more than ever that global issues demand global solutions. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic indicates a need for increased resiliency in public health systems to manage infectious diseases, a factor known as global health security.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines global health security as “the existence of strong and resilient public health systems that can prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, wherever they occur in the world.” Through global health security initiatives, organizations such as the Global Health Security Agenda focus on assisting individual countries in planning and resource utilization to address gaps in health security in order to benefit not only the health and welfare of the individual countries, but the health and welfare of the world’s population as a whole. The Coronavirus has been reported in 214 countries, illustrating that one country’s health security can impact the health security of dozens of others. With the ever-increasing spread of globalization, it is easier for infectious diseases to spread more than ever before, making global health security even more essential than in the past.

Global health security effects more than just health and pandemic preparedness worldwide. Johnson & Johnson Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky recently stated that “[g]oing forward, we’re going to understand much better that if we don’t have global public health security, we don’t have national security, we don’t have economic security and we will not have security of society.” As demonstrated by COVID-19, failure to adequately prevent, detect, and respond to infectious diseases has economic, financial, and societal impacts. Due to the Coronavirus, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Financial Times Stock Exchange Group saw their biggest quarterly drops in the first three months of the year since 1987; industries such as travel, oil, retail, and others have all taken a substantial hit in the wake of the pandemic. Unemployment rates have increased dramatically as employers are forced to lay off employees across the majority of industries, amounting in an estimated loss of 30 million positions in the United States alone. Furthermore, Coronavirus unemployment has been shown to disproportionally affect women workers and people of color. The social and societal effects of COVID-19 continue to emerge, including, but not limited to, the interruption of education for an estimated 87% of students worldwide and an increase in domestic violence rates during shelter in place procedures. The ripple effect caused by the spread of infectious disease permeates nearly every aspect of a nation’s operation and its people’s lives, well beyond that of health and physical well-being.

With a myriad of lessons to glean from the global experience of COVID-19, one lesson countries and their leaders must focus on is the future of global health security. The shared responsibility of global health security requires global participation to strengthen health both at home and abroad so that future infectious diseases do not have the devastating health, economic, and social consequences that the coronavirus continues to cause.

 


A Cold-Blooded Cure: How COVID-19 Could Decimate Already Fragile Shark Populations

Emily Kennedy, MJLST Staffer

Movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, and The Meg demonstrate that fear of sharks is commonplace. In reality, shark attacks are rare, and such incidents have even decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer people enjoying the surf and sand. Despite their bad, Hollywood-driven reputation sharks play a vital role in the ocean ecosystem. Sharks are apex predators and regulate the ocean ecosystem by balancing the numbers and species of fish lower in the food chain. There are over 500 species of sharks in the world’s oceans and 143 of those species are threatened, meaning that they are listed as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. Sharks are particularly vulnerable because they grow slowly, mature later than other species, and have relatively few offspring. Shark populations are already threatened by ocean fishing practices, climate change, ocean pollution, and the harvesting of sharks for their fins. Sharks now face a new human-imposed threat: COVID-19.

While sharks cannot contract the COVID-19 virus, the oil in their livers, known as squalene, is used in the manufacture of vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines currently being developed. Shark squalene is harvested via a process known as “livering,” in which sharks are killed for their livers and thrown back into the ocean to die after having their livers removed. The shark squalene is used in adjuvants, ingredients in vaccines that prompt a stronger immune response, and has been used in U.S. flu vaccines since 2016. Approximately 3 million sharks are killed every year to supply squalene for vaccines and cosmetic products, and this number will only increase if a COVID-19 vaccine that uses shark squalene gains widespread use. One non-profit estimates that the demand for COVID-19 vaccines could result in the harvest of over half a million sharks.

Sharks, like many other marine species, are uniquely unprotected by the law. It is easier to protect stationary land animals using the laws of the countries in which their habitats are located. However, ocean habitats largely ungoverned by the laws of any one country. Further, migratory marine species such as sharks may travel through the waters of multiple countries. This makes it difficult to enact and enforce laws that adequately protect sharks. In the United States, the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act govern shark importation and harvesting practices. One area of shark conservation that has gotten attention in recent years is the removal of shark fins for foods that are considered delicacies in some countries. The Shark Conservation Act was passed in the United States in response to the crisis caused by shark finning practices, in addition to the laws that several states had in place banning the practice. The harvest of shark squalene has not garnered as much attention as of yet, and there are no United States laws enacted to specifically address livering.

Internationally, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the International Plan of Action for the Conservation and Management of Sharks (IPOA) are voluntary, nonbinding programs. Many of the primary shark harvesting nations have not signed onto CMS. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) is binding, but there are loopholes and only 13 shark species are listed. In addition to these international programs, some countries have voluntarily created shark sanctuaries.

Nations that have refused to agree to voluntary conservation efforts, that circumvent existing international regulations, and lack sanctuaries leave fragile shark species unprotected and under threat. The squalene harvesting industry in particular lacks transparency and adequate regulations, and reports indicate that protected and endangered shark species end up as collateral damage in the harvesting process. A wide array of regional and international interventions may be necessary to provide sharks with the conservation protections they so desperately need.

Research and development of medical cures and treatments for humans often comes with animal casualties, but research to development of the COVID-19 vaccine can be conducted in a way that minimizes those casualties. There is already some financial support for non-animal research approaches and squalene can also be derived and synthesized from non-animal sources. Shark Allies, the conservation group that created a Change.org petition that now has over 70,000 signatures, suggests that non-shark sources of squalene be used in the vaccine instead, such as yeast, bacteria, sugarcane, and olive oil. These non-animal adjuvant sources are more expensive and take longer to produce, but the future of our oceans may depend on such alternative methods that do not rely on “the overexploitation of a key component of the marine environment.”