Health law in an incredibly broad and dynamic field centered around technology. The field is ever changing as health care law and technology advance. In some aspects, the field is advancing as medical technology improves. However, the COVID-19 pandemic produced significant questions and concerns regarding technology and health disparities.
Last week, the Jaharis Health Law Institute hosted a Spring Symposium addressing Health Disparities: Is Technology the Answer? Ana Santos Rutschman, Assistant Professor of Law, Center for Health Law Studies at Saint Louis University School of law, discussed the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines with respect to health law related issues. She highlighted that to some extent, the law and society treat vaccines and other life-saving goods as commodities.
How do we as society produce vaccines and allocate emerging health goods at such a rapid rate? Professor Rutschman explained that the production of COVID-19 vaccines are subject to contracts and reflect an intellectual property framework. Generally speaking, she noted that scientifically, the United States succeeds in producing critically needed health goods, vaccines in particular. For example, the United States controlled the Ebola virus outbreak, and in record timing, approved the Ebola vaccine.
Even with the ability to produce critical health goods at such a rapid pace, the United States struggles to distribute vaccines equally among minority racial and ethnic groups. Theories of inequalities in distribution and production of COVID-19 vaccines reflect under-enrollment of racial minorities in clinical medical trials. Professor Rutschman, quoting Dr. Anthony Fauci, mentioned that COVID-19 clinical trials failed to properly reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States. The law requires some representation of minorities but this minimum is very low compared to actual numbers.
Vaccines in particular come with data and trust deficits which cause uncertainty among minority communities. Professor Rutschman believes minorities are systematically short changed within the field of health. In order to make a difference and combat health disparities, Professor Rutschman argues that meaningful changes are required. Vaccine distribution and contract law must work together. Systematic changes are needed. The government can correct some inefficiencies regarding vaccine production and distribution, however administrative changes are needed to do so.