Urgent Legal Lessons From a Very Fast Problem: COVID-19

12 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2020

See all articles by Eric E. Johnson

Eric E. Johnson

University of Oklahoma College of Law

Theodore C. Bailey

Greater Baltimore Medical Center

Date Written: March 26, 2020


The course of a pandemic is dictated not just by biology, but also by law. And crucially, unlike biology, law can be readily adapted in response to a pandemic. Unfortunately, the current law does not take account of the compressed timeframe and rapidly changing social needs that distinguish pandemic times from normal times. We thus suggest three urgent, early lessons for law in the pandemic context: First, free information flows save lives, an observation which has ramifications for freedom of speech and press, copyright law, and patent law. Identifying particular hazards that patent law poses to the free flow of scientific research findings, we suggest a government-funded reward system as an adjunct to the patent system to incentivize pandemic-relevant research and its rapid publication. Second, politically accountable decisionmakers may not act optimally to save lives. We suggest a refashioned, politically insulated U.S. Public Health Service imbued with administrative independence in the vein of the Federal Reserve Board. Third, pre-crisis regulatory structures are not proving nimble enough in the midst of the pandemic. We suggest legislation that directs the FDA to be creative in designing case-by-case approval procedures for vaccines and other treatments to allow them to get to market much faster. To accelerate approvals while retaining scientific rigor, we suggest allowing well-informed, consenting human testing subjects to take on more uncertain risk than the FDA currently tolerates. In sum, we argue for a more general, systematic, and critical perspective on law in the special context of a pandemic.

Keywords: vaccines, FDA, constitutional rights, administrative law, intellectual property, public health, pandemic, coronavirus

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Eric E. and Bailey, Theodore C., Urgent Legal Lessons From a Very Fast Problem: COVID-19 (March 26, 2020). Stanford Law Review Online, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3567412

Eric E. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma College of Law ( email )

300 Timberdell Road
Norman, OK 73019
United States

Theodore C. Bailey

Greater Baltimore Medical Center

6701 N. Charles St.
Towson, MD
United States

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