COVID-19

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.

 


No, Dolphins Did Not Reappear in Venice Canals: The Effects of COVID-19 on the Environment

Drew Miller, MJLST Staffer

2020 was a strange, difficult year for billions of people as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. The virus has claimed the lives of over 2,500,000 people, but the effects of the pandemic extend well beyond the loss of life. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, governments at every level around the world began to implement protective measures such as stay-at-home orders and travel bans as early as March 2020 in the United States—nearly a full year ago. The mass quarantine forced over 100,000 businesses to close their doors in the first two months—some temporarily, some permanently— which in turn led to a rise in unemployment and massive drops in stock markets such as the Dow Jones and the FTSE. These economic effects and their potential remedies have been debated endlessly by news organizations, politicians, and regular citizens alike. However, the environmental effects of the pandemic have not been covered as extensively. Reduced travel tendencies have provided the climate and environment a reprieve, but it will not last; if we are to continue down the road towards environmental sustainability, we must continue to push for reform despite the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.

Environmental Effects

In mid-March, 2020, scattered among an unremitting flood of bad news, some happy stories emerged. Swans and dolphins had returned to formerly desolate Venice canals. A group of elephants had sauntered through a village in Yunnan, China, gotten drunk off corn wine, and passed out in a tea garden. Wild boars were wandering through towns. The stories continued. These reports of the Earth healing and wildlife reclaiming space in a world without people went viral, and understandably so: they offered a spark of light in a dark and uncertain time. One tweet (since deleted) about fish, swans, and clear water in Venice canals amassed over 1,000,000 likes.

Unfortunately, the stories weren’t real. “The swans … regularly appear in the canals of Burano.” “The ‘Venetian’ dolphins were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away.” The water was clearer because fewer boats were disturbing the sediment at the bottom. The elephants are a regular presence in the depicted village. If anything, allow these stories to serve as a reminder not to believe everything on the internet.

Moreover, the pandemic may have hurt wildlife more than it helped. Many governments pay for environmental conservation and enforcement initiatives with tourism revenue. As that revenue dried up and budgets were cut, those protections weakened. Financial distress caused by widespread unemployment further exacerbated the situation. In April, there were reports of increased falcon smuggling in Pakistan; in June, poaching of leopards and tigers in India; and in October, trafficking of rhino horns in South Africa and Botswana. The chaos of the pandemic also provided cover for illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, which rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

Nevertheless, despite the absence of Venetian dolphins, the pandemic looked “okay” from an environmental perspective in 2020. Although there was an uptick in reliance on single-use plastics during lockdowns and increased generation of biomedical waste, pollution levels improved. Transportation, the most significant source of greenhouse gases in the United States, saw a 14.7% decline in emissions, and America’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy and industry plummeted more than 10 percent in 2020, reaching their lowest levels in at least three decades. According to a research group, the fall in emissions nationwide was the largest one-year decline since at least World War II. There were also reduced levels of water and noise pollution.

Policy Implications

Unfortunately, the pollution-related benefits of COVID-19 are likely only temporary. Emissions reductions and air quality improvements primarily resulted from reduced transportation. Consequently, as more people return to their typical travel habits, emissions and air quality are likely to bounce back to their pre-pandemic levels. As Corinne Le Quere, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in Britain, stated, “We still have the same cars, the same roads, the same industries, same houses. So as soon as the restrictions are released, we go right back to where we were.”

In fact, emissions may bounce back to levels even higher than they were prior to the pandemic due to the dismantling of numerous climate and environmental policies worldwide. In the United States, nearly 100 environmental protection policies and regulations were reversed or rolled back during the Trump presidency. Citing economic concerns due to COVID, the Czech Prime Minister urged the European Union to abandon the Green New Deal and the European Automobile Manufacturers Association lobbied the European Commission to weaken vehicle emission standards.

COVID-19 has impacted just about every industry in the world, and its economic ramifications continue to present significant difficulties. However, the pandemic is, ultimately, temporary; rebuilding will be challenging, but just as the economy rebounded after the 2008 recession, so it will do again. The Earth may not be so resilient. If we are to achieve a healthier and more sustainable world, businesses and policymakers alike must not recoil from that effort even in the face of unexpected bumps in the road—instead, they must forge ahead.


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.


COVID-19 Vaccination: Pervasive Skepticism and Employer Mandates in the United States

Drew Miller, MJLST Staffer

On December 31, 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic began when the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Chinese office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission regarding cases of “viral pneumonia.” Nearly a year later, despite the protective measures instituted on a global scale to slow the spread, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 1,500,000 people worldwide) and shows no sign of slowing down. All hope is not lost; scientists and biopharmaceutical companies have worked diligently throughout the crisis, and a large-scale vaccination release seems imminent. However, given the prevalence of anti-vaccination sentiment in the United States, it may be difficult to distribute the vaccine to enough people; employer-mandated vaccines likely offer the best chance for widespread vaccination, but the standards governing such mandates remain unclear.

Anti-Vaccination Sentiment in the US

Whether the vaccine will provide outright immunity or simply partial protection, it will regardless be a critical step toward ending the pandemic. However, vaccines are obviously only effective if people agree to get the shot, and that may prove to be a significant barrier in the United States. Vaccine doubt and anti-vaccination movements continue to grow in popularity for a variety of reasons. Social media’s unique ability to bring together like-minded individuals across the globe inevitably results in the creation of insular groups; anti-vaccine support from celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey provide a degree of validation to “regular” people who feel the same way; and general government distrust, which has sharpened considerably under the tumultuous and polarizing Trump presidency, heightens suspicions surrounding FDA testing and approval processes. Finally, as noted by Dr. Paul A. Offit, an infectious disease expert and co-inventor of a vaccine for rotavirus, “Vaccines are a victim of their own success. We have largely eliminated the memory of many diseases.”

Moreover, skepticism regarding the safety and efficacy coronavirus vaccine is not entirely unfounded. The vaccine development process typically takes a decade, whereas this one began under a year ago. A group of researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Texas State University anthropology department writes, “If poorly designed and executed, a COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the U.S. could undermine the increasingly tenuous belief in vaccines and the public health authorities that recommend them – especially among people most at risk of COVID-19 impacts.” The results of a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in September indicates the consequences of all these factors: just over half (51%) of U.S. adults definitely or probably would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today—a 21% drop from 72% in May.

Employer-Mandated Vaccines

With skepticism at an all-time high, the responsibility for raising vaccination rates in the U.S. may fall to employers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) allows employers to legally impose an influenza vaccine requirement on their workers, but there are several requirements and exceptions that make such a mandate more difficult to impose.

First, employees are entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to request medical and disability exemptions. This exemption requires proof of an underlying disability or medical condition that renders an employee essentially unable to safely get the vaccine. Second, employees may also claim religious exemptions to avoid an employer-mandated vaccine. However, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that an employee must have a “sincerely held religious belief” against vaccination. In 2020, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employee’s “holistic health lifestyle” and personal belief that vaccines are harmful were insufficient to trigger protection under the Civil Rights Act. See Brown v. Children’s Hosp. of Philadelphia, 794 Fed. Appx. 226 (3rd Cir. 2020). The court wrote, “[I]t is not sufficient merely to hold a ‘sincere opposition to vaccination’; rather, the individual must show that the ‘opposition to vaccination is a religious belief.’” Id. (citing Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. of Southeast Pa., 877 F.3d 487, 490 (3rd Cir. 2017)).

There are two primary standards governing the situations in which employers may legally require vaccinations regardless of religious or medical exemptions. Title VII does not require employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for medical or religious reasons if it would pose an undue hardship, which it defines as “more than de minimis cost” to the operation of the business. The ADA standard is stricter, requiring reasonable accommodation barring undue hardship, which it defines as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense.”

Finally, because vaccinations are “medical examinations” under the ADA, the COVID-19 vaccine would need to be deemed “job-related, consistent with business necessity or justified by a direct threat, and no broader or more intrusive than necessary.” Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws in employment, has labeled COVID-19 as a “direct threat” to the workplace and stated that employers are allowed under the ADA to “bar an employee from physical presence in the workplace if he refuses to have his temperature taken or refuses to answer questions about whether he has COVID-19, has symptoms associated with COVID-19, or has been tested for COVID-19,” it has not yet stated whether employers will have the right to make a vaccine mandatory.

Conclusion

As such, the rights of employers to legally impose COVID-19 vaccination requirements on employees are uncertain and, absent clear direction or regulation, will likely require case-by-case analysis to determine the validity of each exemption and the corresponding hardship to business. Consequently, even if employers do have the legal right, protracted legal battles are the only remedy, and given the pervasive fear of vaccinations in today’s social climate, there are likely to be a great many of them. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to ravage the nation.


Becoming “[COVID]aware” of the Debate Around Contact Tracing Apps

Ellie Soskin, MJLST Staffer

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge, states have ramped up containment efforts in the form of mask mandates, business closures, and other public health interventions. Contact tracing is a vital part of those efforts: health officials identify those who have been in close contact with individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 and alert them of their potential exposure to the virus, while withholding identifying information. But traditional contact tracing for a true global pandemic requires a lot of resources. Accordingly, a number of regions have looked to smartphone-based exposure notification technology as an innovative way to both supplement and automate containment efforts.

Minnesota is one of the latest states to adopt this approach: on November 23rd, the state released “COVIDaware” a phone application designed to notify individuals if they’ve been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Minnesota’s application utilizes a notification technology developed jointly by Apple and Google, joining sixteen other states and the District of Columbia, with more expected to roll out in the coming weeks. The nature of the technology raises a number of complex concerns over data protection and privacy. Additionally, these apps are more effective the more people use them and lingering questions remain as to compliance and the feasibility of mandating use.

The joint Apple/Google notification software used in Minnesota is designed with an emphasis on privacy. The software uses anonymous identifying numbers (“keys”) that change rapidly, does not solicit identifying information, does not provide access to GPS data, and only stores data locally on each user’s phone, rather than in a server. The keys are exchanged via localized Bluetooth connection operating in the background. It can also be turned off and relies wholly on self-reports. For Minnesota, accurate reports come in the form of state-issued verification codes provided with positive test results. The COVIDaware app checks daily to see if any keys contacted within the last 14 days have recorded positive test results. Minnesota policymakers, likely aware of the intense privacy concerns triggered by contact tracing apps, have emphasized the minimal data collection required by COVIDaware.

The data privacy regulatory scheme in the United States is incredibly complex, as there is no single unified federal data protection policy. Instead, the sphere is dominated by individual states. Federal law enters into the picture primarily via the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”), which does not apply to patients voluntarily giving health information to third parties. In response to concerns over contact tracing app data, multiple data privacy bills were introduced to Congress, but even the bipartisan “Exposure Notification Privacy Act” remains unpassed.

Given the decentralized nature of the internet, applications tend to be designed to comply with all 50 states’ policies. However, in this case, state-created contact tracing applications are designed for local use, so from a practical perspective states may only have to worry about compliance with neighboring states’ data privacy acts. The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act passed in 1974 is the only substantive Minnesota state statute affecting data collection and neighboring states’ (Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota) laws have similarly limited or dated schemes. In this specific case, the privacy-focused Apple/Google API that forms the backbone of COVIDaware and the design of the app itself, described briefly above, likely keep it complaint. In fact, some states have expressed frustration at the degree of individual privacy afforded by the Apple/Google API, saying it can stymie coordinated public health efforts.

Of course, one solution to even minimal data privacy concerns is simply not to use the application. But the efficacy of contact tracing apps depends entirely on whether people actually download and use them. Some countries have opted for degrees of mandatory use: China has mandated adoption of its contact tracing app for every citizen, utilizing unprecedented government surveillance to flag individuals potentially exposed, and India has made employers responsible for ensuring every employee download its government-developed contact tracing app. While a similar employer-based approach is not legally impossible in the United States, any such mandate would be legally complex, and anyone following the controversy over mask mandates should instinctively recognize that a mandated government tracking app is a hard sell (to put it lightly).

But mandates may not even be necessary. Experts have emphasized that universal compliance isn’t necessary for an app to be effective: every user helps. Germany and Ireland have not mandated use, but have download rates of 20% and 37% respectively. Some have proposed small, community-focused launches of tracking apps, similar to successful start-ups. With proper marketing and transparency, states need not even enter the sticky legal mess that is mandating compliance.

Virtually every policy response to COVID in the United States has been met with heated controversy and tracking apps are no different. As these apps are in their infancy, legal challenges have yet to emerge, but the area in general is something of a minefield. The limited and voluntary nature of Minnesota’s COVIDaware app likely places it out of the realm of significant legal challenges and significant data privacy concerns, at least for the moment. The general conversation around contact tracing apps is a much larger one, however, and has helped put data privacy and end user control into the global conversation.

 

 

 

 

 


When Divides Collide: How COVID-19 Has Further Exposed the Link Between the Digital Divide and the Education Gap

Schuyler Troy, MJLST Staffer

As we enter what public health experts warn will be the worst phase yet of the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans have been forced to reckon with the world of remote work—as of June 2020, 42 percent of the U.S. work force was working from home full time. Zoom, the now-ubiquitous video teleconferencing platform, saw an increase in meeting participation from approximately 10 million daily participants in December 2019 to at least 200 million by the end of March 2020. Zoom snafus have taken their place in the cultural zeitgeist, ranging from relatively harmless and even humorous technical snafus to more serious issues like “Zoombombing” and privacy concerns.

Among the more serious problems coming into sharper focus is the effect that remote learning has had on school-aged children, their parents, and their teachers. Without a national strategy regarding how to reopen schools for in-person instruction, states and localities were left to devise what ultimately became a patchwork of solutions. As of September 2, 2020, 73 percent of the largest school districts in the United States had chosen to offer only remote instruction at least to start the year, affecting more than 8 million students.

Early data from this massive shift to remote instruction has revealed some worrying signs. A majority of teachers across the United States report that fewer than half of their students are attending remote classes; 34 percent of teachers report that only 1 in 4 students are attending remote classes. Perhaps more distressing is the data showing stagnation in academic progress. Researchers at Brown University and Harvard University analyzed data gathered for over 800,000 students across the United States and found that through late April 2020, “student progress in math had decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, [and] by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes” as compared to a typical school year. An analysis by McKinsey & Company indicates that the effects on Black and Hispanic students could be even more pronounced.

While racial and socioeconomic education achievement gaps are not new, the shift to remote instruction nationwide appears to have exacerbated them. Pew Research data provides some clues as to one factor that may be driving this phenomenon: lack of access to reliable, high-speed Internet that is necessary for videoconferencing and online coursework. As of 2019, 61 percent of Hispanic Americans and 66 percent of Black Americans used broadband to access the Internet, as compared to 79 percent of white Americans. Only 56 percent of Americans making under $30,000 per year had access to broadband Internet at home, as compared to 92 percent of Americans making over $75,000. Rural communities, which tend to have higher poverty rates than urban and suburban communities, are also less likely to have access to broadband Internet; only 63 percent of rural communities had access to broadband Internet, as compared to 75 percent of urban communities and 79 percent of suburban communities.

Taken together, the data paints a clear and rather sobering picture: remote instruction is leaving some of America’s most vulnerable students even further behind than before.

Congress has taken action in recent years to address the broadband access disparity with the Digital Equity Act, introduced in the Senate in 2019 but not yet passed, which would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish grant programs promoting digital equity and inclusion, and building capacity for state governments to increase adoption of broadband by their residents. President-elect Joe Biden also pledged throughout the 2020 presidential campaign to expand access to broadband Internet through infrastructure plans and subsidies to low-income Americans who cannot afford broadband. With seeming bipartisan agreement, a rarity in today’s polarized Congress, the United States may be on track to begin closing the digital divide. How that affects the education gap is yet to be seen, but there is good reason to believe closing the digital divide will help narrow the education gap as well.

Pandemics are fairly rare, but they are near impossible to predict, either in frequency or severity. The world was caught off-guard by COVID-19, but the lessons learned, including the lessons on remote instruction, can and should endure. Further, remote instruction is now another metaphorical “tool in the belt” for school districts; many districts are now considering eliminating snow days and replacing them with remote instruction. The sooner there is action on bridging the digital divide, the better the chances that students have to maintain their learning goals.


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.

 


Extracting Favors: Fossil-Fuel Companies are Using the Pandemic to Lobby for Regulatory Rollbacks and Financial Bailouts

Christopher Cerny, MJLST Staffer

In the waning months of World War II, Winston Churchill is quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying, “[n]ever let a good crisis go to waste.” It seems fossil-fuel companies have taken these words to heart. While in the midst of one of the greatest crises of modern times, oil, gas, and coal companies are facing tremendous economic uncertainty, not only from the precipitous drop in demand for gasoline and electricity, but also from the rise of market share held by renewable energy. In response, industry trade groups and the corporations they represent are engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at procuring financial bailouts and regulatory rollbacks. The federal government and some states seem inclined to provide assistance, but with the aforementioned rise of renewable energy, many see the writing on the wall for some parts of the fossil-fuel industry.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict immeasurable havoc on a global scale. The virus and the mitigation efforts designed to curb its spread have dramatically changed the way humankind interacts with each other and the world around us. In the United States, nearly all states at one time or another implemented mandatory shelter-at-home orders to restrict movement and prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus. These orders have, in many ways, completely restructured society and the economy, with perhaps no sector being more impacted than transportation. At the peak of the virus in the United States, air travel was down 96% and, in April 2020, passenger road travel was down 77% from 2019. Similarly, the pandemic has altered America’s energy consumption. For example, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator reports a decrease in daily weekday demand in March and April of up to 13% and a national average decline of as much as 7% for the same time frame. A secondary impact of these market disruptions is on the fossil-fuel industry. The decrease in electricity demand has further diminished the already declining coal market, while the fall off in travel and transportation has radically impacted oil prices.

On April 20, a barrel of oil traded for a loss for the first time ever when demand fell so low that the cost storing oil exceeded its sale price. While the price of a barrel of oil, the world’s most traded commodity, has since improved, as of October 1st, the U.S. stock index for domestic oil companies remains down 57% in 2020. Similarly, coal consumption in the United States is projected to decline 23% this year. Natural gas remains resilient, with U.S. demand only dropping 2.8% between January and May of 2020. However, much of natural gas’s buoyancy comes at the expense of lower prices. These numbers are dire, especially for coal and oil, two domestic industries already on the decline due to the rise in renewable energy.

Fossil-fuel companies have gone on the offensive. The oil and gas industry is responding to these calamitous figures and grim financials by lobbying state and federal lawmakers for financial bailouts and the relaxation of environmental regulations. The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil and gas trade group, requested an extension for compliance with an idle well testing plan that would push 100% program compliance from 2025 to 2029. Further, the trade group asked California to scale back on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to increase the staff of the California Energy Management Division, the state agency charged with oversight of oil and gas drilling. In Texas, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Oil Economic Recovery, created at the behest of the state oil and gas regulatory body and composed of representatives and leaders of Texas’s oil and gas trade groups, recommended the suspension of particular environmental testing and extensions for environmental reporting to the state agency. The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association asked Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to suspend the state’s collection of severance taxes.

On the national stage, the Independent Petroleum Association of America asked the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to support changes to the Main Street Lending Program, a part of the CARES Act, to expand the eligibility requirements to include many oil and gas producers. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a refiners trade association, called on the Trump administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to waive biofuel policies that mandate the blending of renewable corn-derived ethanol in petroleum refining. The American Petroleum Institute also reached out to the Trump administration seeking the waiver of record keeping and training compliance.

Not to be left behind, the coal industry ramped up its lobbying as well. In an opinion piece, the CEO of America’s Power, a coal trade group extolled the virtues of the fleet of coal power plants and their necessity in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Mining Congress, the coal industry’s lobbying arm, sent a letter to the Trump administration and Congressional leaders asking for an end to the industry’s requirements to pay into funds for black lung disease and polluted mine clean-up

These lobbying efforts are being met with varied levels of success. In a move that garnered criticism from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management cut royalties on oil and gas wells leased by the federal government, saving the industry $4.5 million. The EPA scaled back enforcement of pollution rules, instead relying on companies to monitor themselves. The Governors of Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Wyoming sent a letter asking the EPA to waive the biofuel blending regulations in support of the refiners trade group. In September, the EPA denied the request. The Governor of Louisiana agreed to delay the collection of the severance tax, a revenue source for the state that can normally bring in $40 million per month. The Louisiana state legislature later voted to reduce the severance tax on oil and gas from 12.5% to 8.5% for the next eight years. The EPA finalized a rule that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate certain hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, emitted from coil and oil fired power plants.

It is difficult to discern what impact these industry efforts and resulting government actions will have in the long term. The financial measures may have propped up an industry that otherwise would have suffered permanent damage and bankruptcies without the influx of relief and capital. However, environmental groups are more concerned with the regulatory rollbacks. For example, after the EPA chose to allow companies to self-monitor pollution, there was a year-over-year decline of 40% in air emissions tests at industrial facilities and over 16,500 facilities did not submit required water quality reports. The ramifications of the state and federal acquiescence to the fossil-fuel industry’s requested regulatory non-compliance may end up costing the American tax payers millions of dollars, causing irreparable immediate harm to the environment, and delaying critical action needed to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.


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.