Food and Drug Law

Can the Legal System Help Combat COVID-19

Amanda Jackson, MJLST Staffer

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues its global rampage, the United States has been hard hit.  Now third with respect to number of new cases, there is little evidence to show that the case count will decrease any time soon.  If Italy provides any indication of what is to come, the United States is only going to be hit harder by the life-threatening virus.  Both federal government and local governments have taken drastic measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, including state-wide shelter-in-place orders, closing schools and universities, banning dining in at bars and restaurants, and moving non-essential businesses to work-from-home models.

As the confirmed cases continue to rise, so does uncertainty and uneasiness among the nation and the world as a whole.  What will fix this crisis?  How long will these measures be in place?  How many more people will get sick and potentially pass away from the virus?  What will happen to the economy?  Will my loved ones be okay?  The questions never seem to end.  Luckily, however, there are some answers as to how different laws, administrative agencies, and regulations in place in the United States can aid in the fight against the quickly spreading coronavirus.

First, the Defense Production Act (DPA) can alleviate shortages in medical equipment.  As concern about the novel virus itself grows, concern for the availability of necessary supplies and equipment also seems to grow at record speeds.  A lack of masks and other personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, a shortage in ventilators and beds for sick patients, and even a need for healthcare workers and hospital space are becoming more prevalent as the COVID-19 crisis continues.   The DPA, a Korean War-era law, enables the federal government to require private companies to provide for the needs of national defense.  The DPA may not be able to satisfy the need for healthcare workers and hospital space, but it can allow the federal government to direct manufacturers to produce the desperately needed medical equipment for healthcare workers and patients.  However, the President must invoke the DPA in order for it to make a difference, and as of right now, the DPA has not been invoked to aid in the fight against coronavirus.  Although some companies have increased or altered production to help restock the necessary equipment, it remains unclear whether that alone, without invoking the DPA, will be enough to meet the needs of the United States in the coming weeks.  Even so, the DPA provides a robust option to fulfill the needs of the nation in the fight against the pandemic.

Second, the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) and the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) ability to fast track vaccines and therapeutic drugs can speed up development of a COVID-19 vaccine or therapy.  Called an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), the FDA is able to authorize emergency use of an unapproved product or an unapproved use of an approved product under a declaration of a public health, domestic, or military emergency, or a material threat.  The evidence required for approval of an EUA is that the product “may be effective” to treat, diagnose, or prevent the conditions associated with the declaration.  This is a lower standard than the “effectiveness” standard used for typical FDA approvals, a process that takes on average twelve years to go from a new drug in a laboratory to a drug on a pharmacy shelf.  In determining whether to approve the EUA, the Commissioner has to determine that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the risks associated with the product, while also considering the threat prompting the emergency declaration.  Fortunately, the FDA has already issued multiple EUAs with respect to the novel coronavirus, such as for tests to detect COVID-19.  The FDA has also instituted flexible measures outside of EUAs that enable states to take a more prominent role than typically allowed.  For example, the FDA is now allowing states to approve COVID-19 tests without requiring FDA approval or an EUA.  Moreover, NIH is also fast-tracking development of a coronavirus vaccine, with a Phase I clinical trial of the vaccine candidate having already begun.

Third, declarations of major disaster areas will open up emergency funds to help states and local governments respond to an outbreak.  Major disaster area declarations are often requested when a disaster exceeds the response capabilities of state and local governments under extremely severe circumstances.  Major disaster area declarations enable a wide range of federal assistance for both individuals and public infrastructure.  With respect to coronavirus, the President has already declared New York and other hard-hit states as major disaster areas, the first time in United States history that a major disaster has been declared for a public health threat.  The declaration enables the federal government to pay for a majority of the states’ costs and mobilize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deploy assistance in the state, among other methods of assistance.

Fourth, shelter-in-place orders by local governments may reduce the spread of the virus.  Shelter-in-place orders mandate that residents stay in their homes, except for essential trips (e.g., to the grocery store or a pharmacy).  Many shelter-in-place orders also force all non-essential businesses to close.  These orders are generally constitutional under a state’s police power.  At least eight states and many cities have issued shelter-in-place orders as a means to flatten the curve and reduce the impact of coronavirus on society and the healthcare system.  Some law enforcement officials appear to be taking the orders very seriously, breaking up parties in violation of the shelter-in-place rules or stating that the orders will be “strictly enforced.”

Moreover, there are multiple bills working their way through the federal government that will hopefully provide some more answers and relief for the American people.  Although those options are only a few of the tools in the government’s toolbox, if used properly, they can help the nation combat COVID-19.


Foodborne Illness Law: E. coli, Salmonella, and More

Katherine Nixon, MJLST Staffer

Sometime in the fall of 2018, I walked into Chipotle hoping for a nice savory burrito bowl. The best burrito bowl—at least in my opinion—is made up of the following: brown rice, chicken, cheese, lettuce, hot salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. One ingredient missing can throw off the whole experience. Well, I walked into Chipotle only to find a printed sign on the glass in front of the various ingredients. Let’s be honest, that never means anything good. The sign notified customers that Chipotle would not currently be offering romaine lettuce due to an E. coli outbreak. At first, all I could think was “Noooo, not my beloved burrito bowl. What will it be like without the crunchy lettuce?”

In looking past my immediate concern over the negative effect that a lettuceless burrito bowl would have on my taste buds, I was ultimately thankful I had not eaten the romaine lettuce. Big picture things. It was discovered that the romaine lettuce came from a farm in Santa Barbara County, California. It was distributed through many avenues and not just to food establishments like Chipotle. Unfortunately, people became very sick. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 62 people were infected from 16 states and the District of Columbia. Further, 25 people were hospitalized and 2 people developed a form of kidney failure. This ended up being a big deal. That particular outbreak began in October 2018 and wasn’t declared over until January 9, 2019.

Believe it or not, E. coli outbreaks occur with some frequency. A massive outbreak that began in September 2019 was just declared over by the CDC on January 15, 2020. Again, the source of that outbreak was romaine lettuce. Other outbreaks in 2019 came from ground bison, flour, and ground beef. Aside from E. coli, there are other types of outbreaks as well. For instance, in 2019, there were several Salmonella outbreaks related to food items such as papayas and frozen raw tuna. Many people fell sick.

At this point, you might be wondering—what does this all have to do with law? It turns out there is a whole body of law generally referred to as “foodborne illness law.” I know—you definitely don’t learn about that in your normal law school curriculum. Yet, the name is somewhat self-explanatory. As succinctly put by the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, “[A] person who is injured as a result of a foodborne illness may bring a civil cause of action against another by claiming that the other individual is legally liable for the harm caused by the foodborne illness.” Sometimes, there is even strict liability.

Overall, this type of law can be highly technical and usually involves the help of experts. It also can be quite difficult. Including the difficulty that often comes in discovering the source of a certain outbreak as well as the manufacturer of that source. It can be like piecing a giant puzzle together. However, once the pieces start to fit together, it all begins to make sense. If you have a science background, especially biology, this may be an area of law for you to consider. Next time you are at a family gathering and Uncle Eddy asks what you want to do, tell him you want to specialize in foodborne illness law. That will surely grab his attention.

 

 


Treating Depression with Ketamine? How The Investment Was Made

Hunter Moss, MJLST Staffer

Depression is a serious mental disorder that afflicts millions of Americans each year. One in three of these individuals struggles to find a treatment method that alleviates their condition, and are aptly said to suffer from treatment-resistant depression. In the most severe cases, treating depression can be a life or death decision—depression is the leading cause of over 41,000 suicides every year. For those dealing with depression, every day is a struggle to persevere and try to regain a sense of normalcy.

A new therapy for treatment-resistant depression was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this week, one that could help those that have been unable to find relief elsewhere. The unexpected source of the therapy is esketamine. If the name of this drug sounds familiar, it is because the name is based on, and molecularly similar to, the street drug named ketamine. While originally synthesized in the 1960’s as an anesthetic and first used widely in the Vietnam War, ketamine is now known as a party drug, providing the user with mild hallucinations and a sense of euphoria. Due to its dangerous side-effects and potential for abuse, ketamine was placed on the Schedule III of the United States Controlled Substance Act in August of 1999.

In the early 1990’s, researchers at Yale University first recognized the potential for ketamine to treat the symptoms of depression. Since then, scientists sought to confirm the viability of ketamine as a treatment option for individuals who did not experience relief from other treatment methods. A 2012 study out of Baylor College of Medicine proved just that: 85% of patients with severe depression reported the treatment to be effective. Unlike selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are most commonly prescribed to treat depression and can take weeks to build in a patient’s system before becoming effective, ketamine can provide nearly immediate relief with its full effect being felt in as little as two days.

With the science firmly in place, the next hurdle advocates of ketamine faced was of perception—in the eyes of the FDA and the public alike. Radical clinics began to emerge across the country to provide patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression with a safe, heavily-monitored environment to undergo care. Because ketamine had yet to be recognized as a potential aid for depression by the FDA, clinic physicians would often have to prescribe the drug under the guise of using it as an anesthetic. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to a new treatment for a severe mental disorder created some inevitable quandaries for both doctors and patients, who would be unable to receive insurance coverage for a non-FDA approved treatment program.

While the medical community was well aware of the healing potential of ketamine, pharmaceutical companies were reluctant to make the investment. The average price-tag of a clinical trial for the FDA is $19m. There is certainly a market for the drug with countless Americans suffering from depression. The issue holding pharmaceutical companies back is related to patent law. In order to receive a patent, the proposed invention must be novel—and considering that ketamine has been around for nearly sixty years, that would be an impossible claim to make. Without patent protection, the multi-million dollar investment is bad economics for big pharma, even if the trials could provide relief for millions of Americans.

So why did Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the developer of a treatment method for depression based on ketamine, make the investment and receive FDA approval for its new drug Sprovato? The answer is because Sprovato is esketamine, a sufficiently different molecule from ketamine to be patentable. Certain molecules can be left-handed and have right-handed doppelgangers. While it is beyond the scope of this blog piece (and the ability of its author) to explain the difference between the two, esketamine is the left-handed version of ketamine’s right hand. The deviation between the molecules is a significant enough difference to pass the novelty requirement necessitated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While there is some debate as to whether esketamine is as effective as its counterpart, esketamine passed the FDA’s clinical trials and, for the most part, has been received as a viable alternative to ketamine treatment. This development could help legitimize the countless ketamine clinics that have emerged across the United States over the last few years, yielding a promising new alternative for those struggling with severe depression. At the same time, the story of ketamine raises questions about the roles of several actors in the health care system, specifically pharmaceutical companies, the FDA and the USPTO, in delaying the introduction of life saving medication in order to adhere their respective financial and regulatory requirements.


Health Supplements: The “Wild West” of FDA Regulations

Gabe Branco, MJLST Staffer 

At some point, we all have taken a multivitamin and/or some type of dietary supplement. They are hard to miss in most stores such as Target or Wal-Mart.  The bright colored packaging and unfulfilling promises of “losing weight quickly” without dieting or “building muscle” without working out catches everybody’s attention. Most people assume that these products, ironically labeled “health” or “dietary” supplements, must be safe to ingest due to placing them in the same category as a “drug,” or because they deem the supplement to be “natural.” However, the reason people are mistaken is because the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) chooses to differentiate “health” products from “drugs.”

Under the FDA’s current regulatory scheme, “health” supplements are treated more like special foods than drugs. Drugs are considered unsafe until proven safe through clinical trials. These trials must be done on all drugs, even those that are sold without a required prescription. The trials must show that the drug is both safe and effective for the specified use. Once the drug is approved, manufacturers are subject to carefully monitored conditions and packaging requirements. The packaging requirement includes conditions the drug has been proven to treat, known side effects, contraindications, and unsafe interactions with other drugs. After the drug has been manufactured and released to the public for consumption, the FDA follows up on any adverse effects consumers and their doctors report, along with any adverse effects reported by the manufacturer.

“Dietary” supplements, on the other hand, are seen as safe until proven unsafe, a stark contrast to their drug counterpart. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) defines “dietary” supplements as a category of food. As such, “dietary” supplements do not undergo the rigorous pre-manufacturing and post-manufacturing approval and monitoring process that drugs do. DSHEA prohibits supplements from containing anything that may have “a significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury” when the supplement is used as directed on the label, or with regular use if there are no directions. While the regulation makes clear these supplements should not significantly or unreasonably expose the public to increased risk of harm, DSHEA fails to enforce the regulation with any preventative measures.

DSHEA effectively allows manufacturers to print any statement they wish on “dietary” supplement labels, so long as it is followed by the phrase “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This practice is troublesome because the statement may suggest or claim outright that the “dietary” supplement treats symptoms or results in an outlandish outcome if taken. Even with the FDA warning, consumers would have little to no reason to assume that supplements placed on shelves everywhere could contain none of the listed ingredients or unknown ingredients that can cause adverse health effects.

The FDA has the authority to stop any production of “dietary” supplement if it is shown there is an increased risk of harm to the public. However, this only occurs after the release of the supplement and subsequent adverse effects impact consumers. Due to the lack of pre-manufacturing testing requirements, many “dietary” supplements contain germs, pesticides, or toxic heavy metals that may adversely impact consumers. In addition, many “dietary” supplements either do not contain what is listed on the label, contain more or less of what is listed on the label, or even contain ingredients not listed on the label. This issue could also stem from parties other than the manufacturers and sellers. Without any regulations pre-manufacturing, many suppliers of ingredients may mix or substitute the ingredients sold to manufacturers with less expensive or tainted filler ingredients.

These issues become problematic when an ingredient the FDA would deem a “drug” finds its way into a “dietary supplement.” Many male enhancers or muscle building “dietary” supplements have been found to contain substances much like Viagra or Cialis, which are regulated as “drugs.” In addition, certain weight loss supplements have been found to contain sibutraimine, which has been banned in the United States. All of these supplements were recalled by the FDA in a reactionary manner. However, in most instances a “dietary” supplement may contain a drug that has little to no known effects. Having little to no known effects makes it more difficult to detect if a “dietary” supplement indeed contains a drug, and if it then must undergo the more rigorous FDA drug requirements. By providing manufacturers and sellers a pathway to produce categorical “drugs” and distribute them to the public without undergoing the rigorous FDA drug testing processes, DSHEA potentially does more deregulation than regulation.

FDA regulations concerning “dietary” supplements should be as stringent as regulations governing drugs. The simplest solution would be to implement the same pre-manufacturing and post-manufacturing procedures that are required of “drug” manufacturers into the “dietary” supplement realm. Doing so would fulfill DSHEA’s requirement that the “dietary” supplements do not cause a significant or unreasonable increase in risk of injury or illness. Additionally, this would allow the FDA to regulate “drugs” to its fullest potential.


Impact of China’s Generics Push on Innovator Drug Companies

Sherrie Holdman, MJLST Staffer

With a population of 1.42 billion, China presents a large market for both innovator manufacturer and generic drug companies.  Currently, about 95% of marketed drugs are sold by generics. However, many patients in China opt to use more expensive, imported, brand-name drugs.  In an effort to address this problem, China’s State Council has announced its “Opinions Concerning Reforms of Policies to Improve the Supply and Utilization of Generics” to encourage the people of China to use generic drugs early this year.  As a regulatory document, the Opinion shed light on the future direction of China’s generic market.

The Opinion identifies three important suggestions to guide implementation. The first suggestion is to promote research and development of generic drugs in China.  The Opinion proposes a drug list to be compiled that identifies drugs for which generic counterparts don’t exist yet. The Opinion also encourages the government to develop key technologies in manufacturing generics.  The second suggestion aims to improve the quality and efficacy of generic drugs. Generics will only be approved if their quality and efficacy are equivalent to the original drugs.  To facilitate this goal, the State Council proposes speeding up the conformity assessment of quality and efficacy of generic drugs and improving the quality management of generic drugs.  The third suggestion is to provide policy incentives for generics development, including implementation of a tax policy for generic manufacturers. Under this policy, a generic manufacturer, once designated as a “high technology enterprise,” will have a preferential tax rate of 15%, compared to the 25% rate for other companies.  In order to be a “high technology enterprise,” the generic manufacturer will need to meet certain qualifications. Meanwhile, the Opinion encourages patentees to voluntarily grant compulsory licenses to Chinese generic manufacturers when there is “a serious threat to the public health.”  However, despite its long existence in Chinese patent law and regulation, the compulsory licenses are historically rare in practice, partly because of the difficulty in defining what constitutes a “serious threat to the public health.”    

In order to balance the interests of innovator and generic drug companies, the Opinion provides recommendations for strengthening the enforcement of intellectual property rights.  For example, the Opinion proposes establishing an “early warning patent system” to prevent generic manufacturers from infringing on valid patents and thus mitigating the risk of infringement.  Moreover, the State Council proposed to enhance accessibility of innovative drugs, especially imported oncology drugs, by applying no tariffs on imported new drugs. A five-year patent extension for new drugs was also proposed to enhance the intellectual property protection of innovator drugs.

Following the announcements promulgated in the Opinion, on April 25, 2018, China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) released its “Public Comment Draft of Pharmaceutical Data Exclusivity Implementing Rules (provisional).” The Draft proposes that “innovative new drugs” will enjoy six years of data protection and “innovative therapeutic biologics” will enjoy 12 years of data protection.  By proposing data protection for new drugs, China encourages multinational corporations to include China in international multicenter clinical trials and to concurrently apply for market introduction in China.  Even if the new drug is introduced to China at a later time, the drug will still be entitled to a data protection period (e.g., from one to five years). The public comment period for the Draft was closed on May 31, 2018 and the final rule is expected soon.  

Facing China’s generics push, innovator drug makers can strengthen their IP strategy in numerous ways.  For example, companies should disclose information about the patents in the drug list in a timely manner, making the public and government aware of the patents.  Further, companies should also establish a multi-directional scheme for IP rights protection including not only patent, but also knowhow, trade secret, design, trademark and copyright.