PTO Eyes Prioritized Patents to Combat Covid-19

The FDA and other agencies at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services have taken a number of measures to push back against the COVID-19 pandemic, but an agency at the Dept. of Commerce is also getting into the fight. The Patent and Trademark Office recently unveiled a prioritized patent examination pilot that will put COVID-fighting applications to the front of the queue, with a special emphasis on small and micro entities.

The May 8 PTO statement indicates that the agency will waive the fees ordinarily associated with priority patent applications, but also that these applications will be processed within six months, assuming the applicant responds to PTO queries promptly. PTO director Andrei Iancu said small businesses and independent inventors “are often the difference makers when it comes to cutting-edge technology,” but “are also in most need of assistance” as the pandemic wears on.

In the accompanying Federal Register notice, PTO said the scope of the program is limited to products that are subject to an FDA premarket review process, such as emergency use authorizations, premarket approvals and new drug applications. Biologics license applications are also within the scope of the program, but continuing original patent applications are apparently excluded. Filings must include no more than four independent claims and no more than 30 total claims. Multiple dependent claims are also out of consideration, and applicants that file for an extension for time to file a reply will lose their place in this expedited program.

FDA Resets Serology Test Policy for Pandemic

The FDA has maintained a steady pace of policy changes in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, including a May 4 policy that calls on makers of some serological tests to file for an EUA for their tests. The change followed congressional criticism that many of these tests did not work as advertised, but also followed an extended period during which a large number of tests came to market and thus there was a less pressing need for a relaxed policy.

In an accompanying statement, the FDA said the original testing policy under the emergency use authorization program was borne of a need to provide sufficient regulatory flexibility to bring surveillance testing to the medical front lines. A number of serology tests have arrived with claims of FDA approval or authorization despite lacking such a regulatory acknowledgment, but other tests were shown to perform poorly despite otherwise avoiding the agency’s ire.

Consequently, commercial test developers have 10 days to file for authorization under the EUA program after notifying the agency of the results of test validation, or 10 days after the date of publication of the May 4 policy. High-complexity labs that develop their own tests must still forward validation data to the agency, although they are not required to seek authorization via the EUA program. The FDA recommends they do seek inclusion in the EUA listing, however.

The testing policy was updated again May 9 with the news that the first antigen test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus had gained a place in the EUA policy, and the FDA said more such tests will soon be thus authorized. The anticipation regarding antigen testing is that it will rapidly increase the total volume of tests made to the American public, a critical piece in the effort to bring the pandemic under control. However, the agency advised that antigen testing is even more prone to false negatives than molecular testing for viral RNA, and a negative result for an antigen test may have to be checked by a molecular test – usually a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test – prior to any clinical decision-making.

Still, the FDA noted that antigen tests are less expensive to deploy than PCR tests and usually provide more rapid turn-around. Antigen tests may boost overall testing capacity by millions per day, but the FDA noted that these are intended as diagnostic tests even as the agency noted that they may also aid in the effort to “identify infection rates closer to real time.”

ONC, CMS Delay Compliance Dates for EHR Interoperability

The COVID-19 pandemic has incurred a number of regulatory casualties in recent weeks, and the final rules for electronic health records (EHRs) promulgated earlier this year are two of the latest among those. Not all aspects of these rules were on the same original compliance deadline, however, and vendors will have to delve into the details of these respective delays to keep them straight.

The Office of the National Coordinator and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services posted a joint statement about the delayed implementation date. ONC director Don Rucker said his agency will offer three months of enforcement discretion to EHR vendors “at the end of … certain compliance dates,” a concession to the pandemic. In contrast, CMS administrator Seema Verma stated that hospitals will generally have an additional six months to implement the related requirements.

The ONC announcement was accompanied by a tabular presentation of revised compliance deadlines, many of which simply add three months onto the original six-month deadline. The roll-out of application programming interface (API) functionality was originally subject to a 24-month compliance date, but now enjoys 27 months of regulatory relief. Many other requirements, such as the information blocking requirement, were initially on a six-month delay from the date of the final rule, but this requirement will not be in force until the end of the year at the earliest. The ONC rule appears in the Federal Register with a date stamp of May 1 and an effective date of June 30.

The CMS stated that the requirements for the patient access API are now in force as of Jan. 1, 2021, the same date as the provider directory API. The CMS requirement for information blocking enjoys a less crisply defined compliance date of “late 2020,” while payer-to-payer data exchange functions must be up and running by Jan. 1, 2022.

FDA Posts AE Reporting Policy

Among the pandemic-related considerations undertaken by the FDA is a policy document spelling out the agency’s expectations regarding adverse event (AE) reporting. The terms of the policy apply to medical products and dietary supplements, and deals with the prospect that COVID-driven absenteeism might hamper a company’s AE reporting program.

The policy, which updates a 2012 guidance addressing influenza outbreaks, allows companies to focus their AE reporting efforts on products related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Affected companies are expected to develop a continuity of operations plan (COOP), which should spell out AE reporting and updates for any events that are stored during the pandemic. Companies should document the start and ending dates of their nations’ emergency declarations as well as the impact of absenteeism on AE reporting.

The FDA says it “does not plan to object” if a company is unable to file AE reports on time due to absenteeism caused by they pandemic, but the affect entities have to file those reports within six months of restoration of normal order of a company’s operations. Companies that can report at least some AEs in a timely fashion must do so, and firms that can file all required reports are expected to make timely reports. If the agency expresses concern about reports in connection with specific products or a particular set of circumstances, the FDA will offer no leniency on the standard reporting requirements, the guidance states.

EMA Proposes Delay of MDR Implementation

As the world grapples with the newest version of the coronavirus, regulatory agencies across the globe are reacting with a number of moves, mostly to relax existing regulatory requirements. In contrast, the European Medicines Agency is considering a delay in the implementation date of the as-yet unimplemented Medical Device Regulations, a change that would ease device makers’ concerns on several fronts.

MedTech Europe had posted a plea for a delay from the implementation date, originally set for May 26, 2020, citing the need to address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, device makers were already wary of the practicalities of that original implementation date, largely because of the difficulty in enlisting a sufficient number of notified bodies. The association’s plea was seconded by a range of members of the European Parliament, who made the case that the priority should be device availability until the pandemic becomes manageable.

The proposal to delay implementation for a year was announced March 25, with the acknowledgement that the notion would have to clear the European Parliament. MedTech Europe lent the development its full-throated support, stating March 25 that this change would allow industry to maintain the pressure on the pandemic. Nonetheless, MedTech Europe made the argument that a similar delay is called for in connection with the In Vitro Diagnostic Regulation as well, given the demands of the pandemic on the testing capacity in the EU member states.

Congress Pressing FDA on Serological Testing

The FDA has granted emergency use authorization to a number of diagnostics for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but until recently, those have all been molecular tests conducted with polymerase chain reaction methods. That approach has drawn the interest of at least one member of Congress, who is urging the FDA to take a more active role in ensuring that serological testing becomes more widely available.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who is a member of several subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an April 10 statement that she had previously made known her views on serological testing to several senior Trump administration officials. She said serological testing for antibodies will prove crucial in returning the country to more routine economic activity, and urged FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn to press the case for serological testing with President Trump. Specifically, DeGette recommended that Hahn suggest the use of the Defense Production Act to boost production of the equipment and supplies needed for serological testing, which would allow those who have already been exposed and have recovered to return to work without incurring any undue hazard.

DeGette may or may not be concerned about the FDA’s stance on the question of false positives associated with serological testing, but the agency said in an April 7 statement that it has been in contact with more than 70 test developers about serological tests. The statement, attributed to Hahn, acknowledges the role that serological tests will play in the months ahead, but also points to concerns about false claims regarding FDA approval or emergency authorization.

Whether the FDA has sufficient data to back the use of serological testing as a population-level surveillance strategy is not entirely clear, but it has an ally in that effort in the form of the National Institutes of Health. NIH said in an April 10 statement that it will commence with a study of the presence of antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 in those who have had no prior confirmed diagnosis, but there is a question of how quickly these data will become available.

According to the NIH, the study will enroll as many as 10,000 subjects who will be consented via telephone, although enrollment is limited to those aged 18 years and older. The study will tests for two immunoglobulins via enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and enrollees can handle the blood draw via a home collection kit. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the study should shed light on the “true magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic” by characterizing the rate of non-diagnosed illness.

The registration of this study at clinicaltrials.gov indicates that enrollment may be completed with as few as 1,000 patients despite the ten-fold higher number noted in the NIH press release. Whether the final enrollment volume will be closer to the lower or upper stated enrollment targets will not be clear for some time, as the estimated primary completion date is March 31, 2022, the same date as the projected full study completion date.

FDA Reacts to Coronavirus as Stimulus Bill Passes

The FDA is scrambling to meet the demands imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak, including a series of guidances dealing with a variety of issues. However, the predicament has also prompted two pieces of legislation, one an economic stimulus package and the other a bill that would tie the FDA’s hands where regulation of lab-developed tests is concerned.

After considerable wrangling, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives sent the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act, or H.R. 748) to the Oval Office, which President Trump signed into law March 27. This was the latest – but perhaps not the last – of legislative packages to offset the damage done by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The FDA has ramped up a series of guidance documents to deal with the pandemic. One of the earliest policy documents was a Feb. 29 guidance by the FDA’s device center, which the agency updated March 16 to give the states more leeway to ramp up testing. The pandemic was widely seen as potentially crimping ongoing clinical trials, leading the FDA to post a guidance to deal with such concerns. In a March 18 statement, the agency acknowledged that protocol deviations may be unavoidable, and that study protocols may thus have to be amended. One of the related changes the FDA will allow is the use of telemedicine for some patient follow-up appointments.

Another piece of the regulatory puzzle for coronavirus in the U.S. is the FDA’s enforcement policy for ventilators and other respiratory devices. This policy guidance spells out the conditions under which product labels and device functionality of ventilators and other respiratory devices would not be subject to the usual enforcement standards. The emphasis here, the agency said, is to allow manufacturers to add production lines to existing sites and to allow manufacturing at alternate sites. Among the 13 product codes listed within the scope of the document are those for oxygen conservers and anesthesia gas machines.

The agency’s device center has routinely updated a coronavirus FAQ for diagnostic testing, including updates on swabbing procedures and sites that would be acceptable for testing. In a March 23 statement, the FDA made note of a concern that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be passed along during fecal microbiota transplantation procedures. There is also some concern that cancer patients may be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to compromise of their immune systems.

The FDA also took action on respirator masks in a March 27 statement to the CDC, which authorizes the use of all disposable filtering facepiece respirators that have been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The scope of this policy includes NIOSH-approved respirators that have passed product expiry, assuming these items are not damaged and have been stored in the appropriate conditions. Two days earlier, the FDA dropped an enforcement policy document for the use of face and respirator masks, which includes some conditions for reprocessing of these items.

Bill Would Ban FDA Regulation of LDTs

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has drafted a bill that would disallow FDA regulation of lab-developed tests, at least in part a reaction to the agency’s laggardly response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Paul said in a March 18 statement that S. 3512 would remove “unnecessary government barriers that have drastically slowed the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Verified Innovative Testing in American Laboratories (VITAL) Act of 2020 would affirm that the Public Health Service Act “governs all aspects” of lab-developed testing procedures, according to the associated fact sheet.

The bill states that “all aspects of a laboratory-developed testing procedures shall be regulated” under Section 353 of the Public Health Service Act, and that “no aspects of laboratory-developed testing procedures shall be regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.” This would apply during public health emergencies as well as during periods of normal activity.

Paul’s bill comes shortly after two members of the House of Representatives resurrected the Verifying Accurate, Leading-edge IVCT Development (VALID) Act, which has been modified from previous iterations to address the COVID-19 outbreak. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) said their legislation would create a new product category for diagnostic and lab tests, but they also point to the need to allow labs to respond quickly to public health crises. The bill would allow developers to electronically file their tests for FDA review.

There is a companion bill for the VALID Act in the Senate, but there is also some question as to whether either of these bills will pick up any traction this year, given the impact of the coronavirus on congressional schedules. It might be noted that discussions regarding the fiscal 2021 budget have been displaced by the COVID-19 outbreak at least for the time being, and that the upcoming election is likely to bring a halt to routine legislative activity by the end of August.

Pandemics and Force-Majeure Clauses

With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, medical device companies are facing disruptions to their supply chains, vendors who simply stop providing services, and a denuded work force.  Who is responsible when the supply chain fails due to a pandemic?  What should a company do when its vendors stop all work because their employees must stay home?  And what can a company do when it can’t meet its supply obligations due to its own employees in quarantine?

Due to the current challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, an oft-forgotten contract clause, usually found among the miscellaneous clauses at the end of a contract, has suddenly taken a front seat.  This is the “force-majeure” clause of a contract, also sometimes known as the “Act of God” clause.  A force-majeure clause addresses the allocation of risk between the contracting parties if the contract cannot be performed due to an unanticipated or uncontrollable event.

This blog provides a quick primer for attorneys and businesspeople on force-majeure clauses, which are not usually on the forefront of medical device companies’ minds.  A classic example of a force-majeure clause, as set forth in Corbin on Contracts, is as follows: “Neither party shall be liable for its failure to perform hereunder if said performance is made impracticable due to any occurrence beyond its reasonable control, including acts of God, fires, floods, wars, sabotage, accidents, labor disputes or shortages, governmental laws, ordinances, rules and regulations.”  14 Corbin on Contracts § 74.19 (2019) (further citations omitted).

There are several key components of a force-majeure clause, which are discussed next.

Mutual or One-Way Force-Majeure Clauses – Force-Majeure clauses can be drafted to benefit one party to a contract, or they can be drafted to benefit both sides of a contract.  The example from Corbin on Contracts, above, is a mutual force-majeure clause.  It can benefit either party when there is a force-majeure event (such as a pandemic).

However, not all force-majeure clauses are mutual.  Many are written excusing only one side from performance should a force-majeure event occur.  For example, the above clause could instead have been written “Party A shall not be liable for its failure to perform hereunder if said performance is made impracticable due to any occurrence beyond its reasonable control, including acts of God, fires, floods, wars, sabotage, accidents, labor disputes or shortages, governmental laws, ordinances, rules and regulations.”

Epidemic Language in Force-Majeure Clauses – Many force-majeure clauses specifically reference force-majeure events to include occurrences such as “epidemics” and “quarantine restrictions.”  Many other force-majeure clauses do not.

However, as long as the force-majeure events are written in a broad manner, there is a strong likelihood that courts will consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be a force-majeure event, regardless of whether the specific word “epidemic” is contained in the force-majeure clause.

Similarly, force-majeure clauses often require that the force-majeure event is something beyond the control of the performing party.  As an example, a component part supplier in China may well be able to invoke a force-majeure clause from the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the other hand, a supplier of services to a medical device company (such as an accounting firm) may be less able to invoke such a clause as suppliers of services can often continue to work from home.

Notice – Many force-majeure clauses have a notice requirement.  The notice requirement means that in order to invoke the clause, a party must provide notice to the other parties.  For example, hog shipments did not occur due to an outbreak of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome.  As most hog suppliers did not provide written notice of a force-majeure event, those suppliers could not invoke the force-majeure clause when sued for not delivering hogs per their contractual agreement, even though there was no dispute that the outbreak was a force majeure event.  SNB Farms, Inc. v. Swift & Co., 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2063, at *30-31 (N.D. Iowa Feb. 7, 2003).  Meeting notice requirements is critical.

Effect of Force-Majeure Clause – Force-majeure clauses can do more than simply excuse a party from performing under a contract.  A standard provision is that a force-majeure event does not excuse performance under the contract, but simply extends the obligation until after the event is over.  As such, a supplier may not be obligated to supply materials during the force-majeure event (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic) if it is unable to obtain the materials.  Once the materials become available, however, it must resume shipment.

Lack of a Force-Majeure Clause – What happens when the contract does not contain a force-majeure clause?  The common law defense of impossibility of performance can still protect a non-performing party, when the non-performing party did not cause the event rendering performance impossible.  The term “impossibility” means not only strict impossibility but impracticability because of extreme and unreasonable difficulty, expense, injury or loss involved.  As such, the circumstances of what performance is, or is not, rendered impossible by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely revolve around the nature of the contract and the possibilities open to the parties.

Conclusion – As medical device companies address the supply chain and similar issues raised by COVID-19, prudence dictates that they and their attorneys focus on the details and ramifications of force-majeure clauses.

 

An Overview of Liability Immunity for Products Meant to Counter COVID-19 Under the PREP Act

Device manufacturers (as well as drug manufacturers, distributors, and health care providers) are struggling to answer many questions regarding their potential products liability in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, as discussed below, the PREP Act and the recent declaration by the Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services provides significant immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits.

In 2005, Congress passed the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (“PREP Act”).[1] The PREP Act provides liability immunity to a large group of entities and individuals for the manufacture, distribution, prescription, and use of drugs, biological products, or devices meant to combat a pandemic.[2]

This liability immunity is written almost as broadly as an immunity provision can be written. The protected entities are called “covered persons.”[3] And, covered persons are “immune from suit and liability under Federal and State law with respect to all claims for loss caused by, arising out of, relating to, or resulting from the administration to or the use by an individual of” the drugs, biological products, or devices used to combat the pandemic.[4] The liability immunity covers all actions except for the “willful misconduct” of a covered person.[5]

This immunity extends, for two obvious examples, to (i) a negligence lawsuit against a manufacturer in creating a vaccine meant to treat a pandemic or (ii) a health care provider in prescribing the wrong dose of a drug meant to treat COVID-19.[6] However, the immunity extends much further than just these obvious cases. It would apply, for example, to a “slip-and-fall injury or vehicle collision by a recipient receiving a countermeasure [e.g., drug or device] at a retail store serving as an administration or dispensing location.”[7]

In order for the PREP Act immunity to apply, the Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (“Secretary”) must declare a public health emergency.[8] On March 10, 2020, the Secretary made such a declaration for COVID-19.[9] This declaration was effective as of February 4, 2020 and will continue through October 1, 2024.[10]

COVID-19 is not the first declaration of a public health emergency by the Secretary. For example, the Secretary declared a public health emergency in response to an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus.[11] Litigation involving that declaration is instructive.

Courts generally enforced the PREP Act during the H1N1 outbreak. For example, when a parent of a kindergartner who was inoculated for H1N1 flu without her parent’s consent filed a lawsuit in New York state court against the health department that administered the vaccine, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York held that the lawsuit was preempted by the PREP Act.[12] For another example, a plaintiff sued his physician and employer, who in turn sued the vaccine manufacturer, for being vaccinated without informed consent for the H1N1 influenza virus. The federal court in Missouri held that the PREP Act barred the claims against the vaccine manufacturer. This ruling divested the federal court of jurisdiction to decide the remaining claims.[13] These cases demonstrate the power of the PREP Act to protect companies and individuals from lawsuits involving countermeasures to COVID-19.

[1] 42 U.S.C. 247d-6d and 42 U.S.C. 247d-6e. For an overview of the PREP Act from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, seehttps://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/legal/prepact/Pages/default.aspx.

[2]Id.

[3] Covered persons include companies and individuals that manufacture, distribute, plan, prescribe, administer, or dispense the drug, biological product or device meant to combat the pandemic. 42 U.S.C. 247d-6d(i)(2).

[4] 42 U.S.C. 247d-6d(a)(1).

[5] 42 U.S.C. 274d-6d(d)(1). Willful misconduct is defined as conduct that is: “(i) intentionally to achieve a wrongful purpose; (ii) knowingly without legal or factual justification; and (iii) in disregard of a known or obvious risk that is so great as to make it highly probable that the harm will outweigh the benefit,” 42 U.S.C.S. § 247d-6d(c)(1)(A), and such conduct must proximately cause the death of serious physical injury. 42 U.S.C. 274d-6d(d)(1).

[6]See 85 FR 15198 at 15200.

[7] 85 FR 15198 at 15200.

[8] 42 U.S.C. 274d-6d(a)(1) and (b).

[9] 85 FR 15198.

[10] 85 FR 15198 at 15198, 15202.

[11] 74 FR 50968.

[12]Parker v. St. Lawrence Cty. Pub. Health Dep’t, 2012 NY Slip Op 7934, 102 A.D.3d 140, 954 N.Y.S.2d 259 (App. Div. 3rd Dept.).

[13]Kehler v. Hood, No. 4:11CV1416 FRB, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74502, 2012 WL 1945952 (E.D. Mo. May 30, 2012).