What’s Wrong with Infecting Humans?
Earlier this month, I attended a conference on Controlled Human Infection Studies in the Development of Vaccines and Therapeutics. These studies involve deliberately infecting healthy volunteers with a disease (such as malaria, typhoid, norovirus, or salmonella) in a controlled environment. This research has significant benefits for the development of vaccines [some of the benefits are set out here]. Given that these studies could result in the development of new vaccines, they could serve a crucial role in saving many lives. Nevertheless, intentionally infecting humans with diseases is potentially risky. The degree of risk for the volunteers will vary case to case, depending on the disease and the efficacy of treatment.
Intentionally infecting humans in order to develop vaccines is not a new idea. One historic example of this is the work of Edward Jenner, neatly summarised in the following:
“In 1796, [Jenner] carried out his now famous experiment on eight-year-old James Phipps. Jenner inserted pus taken from a cowpox pustule and inserted it into an incision on the boy’s arm. He was testing his theory, drawn from the folklore of the countryside, that milkmaids who suffered the mild disease of cowpox never contracted smallpox, one of the greatest killers of the period, particularly among children. Jenner subsequently proved that having been inoculated with cowpox Phipps was immune to smallpox. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society in 1797 describing his experiment, but was told that his ideas were too revolutionary and that he needed more proof. Undaunted, Jenner experimented on several other children, including his own 11-month-old son. In 1798, the results were finally published and Jenner coined the word vaccine from the Latin ‘vacca’ for cow.”
Now, the purpose of this post is to ask whether you think that there is necessarily anything morally problematic with these studies?
Assume that the volunteers are adults who understand that taking part in the study is risky. Moreover, assume that they make competent decisions to participate in the study. Does it matter that they are being intentionally infected with a disease? Would it make a difference to the permissibility of the study if the participants have a significant risk of death? If so, why? After all, it is a commonly held view that competent adults should be permitted to engage in risky activities, such as dangerous sports. It is also commonly thought that we should allow competent people to refuse medical treatment, even if this results in their death. Given that this is the case, on what grounds could we stop competent people participating in a risky activity that has potentially huge benefits for others?
It’s an interesting area, and I’d be very interested to know your thoughts.