COVID-19, medical research governance, and public health orders

Image: Mika Baumeister

Posted by Belinda Reeve on behalf of Cate Stewart

The impact of coronavirus-related biomedical research and public heath laws have been considered in recent articles co-authored by Cameron Stewart, Professor of Health, Law and Ethics at the University of Sydney Law School.

Science at warp speed: COVID-19 medical research governance

In biomedical research focused on developing COVID-19 vaccines and therapies, the need for speed is taken for granted. But “what, if anything, might be lost when biomedical innovation is sped up”? In a timely article in the Journal of Bioethical InquiryProfessor Cameron Stewart and colleagues, consider a study (on the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19) recently retracted from The Lancet to illustrate the potential risks and harms associated with speeding up science.

As Professor Stewart and his co-authors note:

[T]the potential damage caused by not ensuring effective governance of research during epidemics may be immense. Harmful drugs and devices might go on to injure millions of people, useful drugs and devices might be abandoned, the public’s faith in science and medicine might be undermined, and irrational and ineffective healthcare might proliferate.

The article goes on to suggest a range of measures to address weaknesses in technical or methodological rigour, lack of peer oversight, and unmanaged conflict of interest in pandemic research.

“This is a difficult conversation, but one that must be undertaken. After all, this is not the first time that science has been sped up during pandemics with problematic effects, and we will undoubtedly need to speed science up again, many times in the future.”

COVID-19 public health orders and mental health practitioners

Professor Cameron Stewart and colleagues look at restrictive practices in Australian COVID-19 public health orders and their implications for mental health practitioners in the October 2020 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing.

Their article notes that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities in all Australian jurisdictions can invoke public health orders that allow for an extremely broad range of coercive orders, including forcible detention, testing, and treatment of any person reasonably suspected of being COVID-19 positive.

The article highlights relevant public health laws for mental health practitioners to be aware of and suggests that mental health units and public health units establish lines of communication to work together.

Professor Stewart and his colleagues conclude with a call for nationally consistent regulation as “the best way to encourage best practice, fair decision-making, the protection of human rights, and the promotion of public safety”.

Cameron Stewart teaches in Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law program, including subjects on Death Law, Health Care and Professional Liability, and Government Regulation, Health Policy and Ethics.

Related posts on COVID-19 from the Sydney Health Law team:

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/18/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-1-legal-frameworks/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/03/19/whos-in-control-of-australias-response-to-coronavirus-part-2-operational-responses/

https://sydneyhealthlaw.com/2020/08/26/rule-of-law-in-the-covid-19-response

The Sydney Neurolaw Project

The Sydney Neurolaw Project based at Sydney Law School, has finished work on a  detailed “neurolaw” reader and case law resource.  The resource maps the terrain of the emerging field of neurolaw, providing a guide to current practical questions in law that are directly affected by developments in neuroscience research.  We are also developing a case law data base, which is a collection of cases indicating the uses of neuroscience evidence  in Australian courtrooms.  The resources will lay the foundations for a broad research program in neurolaw based in the Law School, and a related new postgraduate Unit of Study in Neurolaw, to be offered in 2016.  Both the unit of study and the research program more broadly, touch on issues of legal capacity and responsibility for people with neurological and psychosocial impairments, and human rights and discrimination affecting people with mental impairments.  We also look at the legal uses of neuroscience for people in the general population.  This includes proving “invisible injuries” in court – such as pain, or psychiatric injuries like  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the role of neurological “proof of consciousness” in end of life decision making.   We look at potential stigma associated with brain-based explanations of human behavior, and its treatment in discrimination law, the impact of judge’s psychology on the curial process, and areas in which empirical research is still needed to develop appropriate “evidence-based law”.

For more information on the Sydney Neurolaw project, neurolaw research, or postgraduate coursework, please contact Sascha Callaghan.

Neuroscience in Australian Courtrooms: Responsibility, Liability and the Capacity to Punish

On the 25 June, we hosted the first Sydney Neurolaw Workshop:  Neuroscience in Australian Courtrooms: Responsibility, Liability and the Capacity to Punish at Sydney Law School.   The event focused on how new understandings of the brain and mind from the developing neurosciences, impact legal concepts such as responsibility and capacity, discrimination law, and even the process of judicial decision-making.  Four speakers across neuroscience, philosophy and law addressed various aspects of these questions, with an interdisciplinary panel of specialist commentators from general and forensic psychiatry, criminology, philosophy and the legal profession.

The workshop included contributions from the Brain and Mind Research Insitute’s Professor Max Bennett, Professor Nicole Vincent from Georgia State University, and Professor Neil Levy from Oxford University. It also presented an opportunity for early career researchers to showcase their work, including Dr Michael Sevel from Sydney Law School, and Dr Karen O’Connell from the Faculty of Law at UTS.  The event attracted  over 100 attendees from a broad cross section of universities and professional fields, including the NSW Bar, several law firms, Legal Aid, Justice Health NSW, NSW Drug Health Services, the Kirby Institute, the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and a number of Sydney hospitals. The university received excellent feedback after the event, and was a great endorsement of the broad interests and applications of  brain and mind research, and particularly its implications for law.