Julian Savulescu

Pandemic Ethics: Good Reasons to Vaccinate: COVID19 Vaccine, Mandatory or Payment Model?

The best chance of bringing the Coronavirus pandemic to an end with the least loss of life and the greatest return  to normality seems to be the introduction of an effective vaccine. But how should such a vaccine be distributed?

To be effective, particularly in protecting the most vulnerable in the population, it would need to achieve herd immunity (the exact percentage of the population that would need to be immune for herd immunity to be reached depends on various factors, but current estimates range up to 82% of the population).

There are huge logistical issues around finding a vaccine, proving it to be safe, and then producing and administering it to the world’s population. Even if those issues are resolved, the pandemic has come at a time where there is another growing problem in public health: vaccine hesitancy.

Indeed, recent US polls  “suggest only 3 in 4 people would get vaccinated if a COVID-19 vaccine were available, and only 30% would want to receive the vaccine soon after it becomes available.”

If these results prove accurate then even if a safe and effective vaccine is produced, at best, herd immunity will be significantly delayed by vaccine hesitancy at a cost to both lives and to the resumption of normal life, and at worst, it may never be achieved.

Should it be made mandatory?

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Pandemic Ethics: Extreme Altruism in a Pandemic

Written by Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

Altruism is one person sacrificing or risking his or her own interests for another’s interests. Humans, like other animals, have a tendency towards altruism. This is usually directed to members of their own group. An example is donating a kidney to a family member. This is quite risky – it involves immediate risk of death from anaesthesia or post-operative complications, and long term risk of kidney failure.

But sometimes people are altruistic towards strangers.

Altruism often involves fairly small personal sacrifices. (For example, most people donate to charity, but in countries like the UK, it is typically only a tiny proportion of their income) Where someone can cause great benefit to another person at little or no personal cost, there is an ethical obligation for them to do so. This is the Duty of Easy Rescue. A whole movement has arisen called Effective Altruism which aims to ensure that altruistic acts do as much good as possible.

Altruism can also be extreme. Some people give up their entire livelihood to work overseas for aid agencies or charities. During a pandemic, health workers may take on significant personal risk to provide front-line medical care. In times of war, people may choose to literally give their life for others of their nation.

We can define extreme altruism as an act taken for the benefit of another that involves making large life-altering or life-threatening sacrifices or personal risks.

Society’s approach to extreme altruism is inconsistent. At times of obvious societal need, it encourages it (for example, clapping on the doorstep for ‘key workers’ is in order to offer our appreciation for their altruistic assumption of great risk) or even requires it by conscription of military personnel. At times of perceived lesser need, it is discouraged or even banned. For example, in normal times people are only allowed to take part in research, even if they do so with full knowledge and for no payment, if the risk of the research is minimal, and not if the risks are similar to everyday life. In some jurisdictions, altruistic kidney donations to strangers are banned.

It is not clear why extreme altruism should be limited to national emergency. If someone is competent, knows all the relevant facts, and is thinking clearly and choosing autonomously, they should be able to sacrifice their interests or even life for others. If someone is permitted to participate in highly risky personal activities for purely personal benefit (e.g. climbing Mount Everest, base jumping, or boxing) they ought to be permitted to at least take equivalent risks for the benefit of someone else (e.g. participating in research). Just as a rational, clear thinking person who is competent should be able to sacrifice their own life through suicide for any reason, they should be able to do this for the benefit of others.

We have argued at various points for extreme altruism in medicine. In one sense, there is a constant national emergency: we are all aging and slowly dying. There is a war against aging and death: we are fighting it with medicine. And people should be able sacrifice their interests or lives in this war. 

Extreme altruism extended to COVID-19

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Pandemic Ethics: Why Lock Down of the Elderly is Not Ageist and Why Levelling Down Equality is Wrong

By Julian Savulescu and James Cameron

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog


Countries all around the world struggle to develop policies on how to exit the COVID-19 lockdown to restore liberty and prevent economic collapse, while also protecting public health from a resurgence of the pandemic. Hopefully, an effective vaccine or treatment will emerge, but in the meantime the strategy involves continued containment and management of limited resources.

One strategy is a staged relaxation of lockdown. This post explores whether a selective continuation of lockdown on certain groups, in this case the aged, represents unjust discrimination. The arguments extend to any group (co-morbidities, immunosuppressed, etc.) who have significantly increased risk of death.

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Pandemic Ethics: Is it right to cut corners in the search for a coronavirus cure?

By Julian Savulescu

Cross-posted from The Guardian

The race is on to find a treatment for coronavirus. This race is split between two approaches: the trialling of pre-existing drugs used for similar diseases, and the hunt for a vaccine. In both instances, important ethical decisions must be made. Is it OK to reassign a treatment that comes with side-effects? And with thousands dying from coronavirus every day, is it acceptable to cut corners in the search for a vaccine?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/25/search-coronavirus-cure-vaccine-pandemic

Pandemic Ethics: Who gets the ventilator in the coronavirus pandemic? These are the ethical approaches to allocating medical care

By Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson

Cross-posted from ABC Online

Imagine there are two patients with respiratory failure.

Joan is 40, normally employed with two children and no other health conditions or disabilities. Mary is 80, with severe dementia, in a nursing home.

In the Western world, doctors are gearing up for an explosion of cases of COVID-19 and with a massive shortage of medical resources, including life-saving ventilators, they are likely to be presented with dilemmas of exactly this kind.

It is undeniable that people should have an equal chance when there are sufficient resources.

But when there are limited resources, doctors do take various factors into account.

Read more: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-18/ethics-of-medical-care-ventilator-in-the-coronavirus-pandemic/12063536

Press Release: Tafida Raqeeb: Right Outcome, Wrong Reasons

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu

Dominic Wilkinson describes well the decision to allow a severely brain damaged girl, Tafida Raqeeb, to travel to Italy to continue to be kept alive with artificial ventilation.

This is the right outcome. It appears as if Tafida is insensate or unconscious. If Tafida is vegetative, continuing treatment won’t cause suffering. So it is not harmful for her to be transferred to Italy at her parent’s request. (It would also be permissible to discontinue medical treatment.)

There is some chance she might experience something, in other words that she is minimally conscious. If she is minimally conscious, doctors would have to show she is unrelievably suffering in order to discontinue treatment in her interests. That has not been demonstrated in this case.

Medicine is provided to patients in their best interests. It is not clear, at least to me, whether it is against Tafida’s interests to continue to be kept alive. Italian experts cite a number of reasons to continue to keep Tafida alive, not least to clarify prognosis and to allow parents to come to terms with the situation.

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Four Lessons from the Covert Separation and Study of Triplets

Written by Julian Savulescu

Today, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article entitled “Three Identical Strangers and The Twinning Reaction— Clarifying History and Lessons for Today From Peter Neubauer’s Twins Study” written by Leon Hoffman and Lois Oppenheim.  It provides background to a documentary, Three Identical Strangers, which gained a lot of attention earlier in the year into “the lives of Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran, triplet brothers who stumbled upon each other in their college years and enjoyed a brief period of celebrity before emotionally confronting the implications of their separation.” One triplet ultimately committed suicide.

The triplets were part of a covert research study by child psychiatrist Peter Neubauer who followed them up for many years to study gene-environment interactions in triplets separated at birth. The article alleges that Neuberger was wrongly blamed by the triplets and film makers for their separation at birth. The authors argue it was “Viola Bernard, then a prominent child psychiatrist from Columbia University and consultant to a now-defunct adoption agency” who was responsible for their separation because she “believed that children born of the same pregnancy and placed for adoption would fare better if they were raised by separate families.” The authors review some evidence from the child development literature at the time that supported the idea that twins or triplets would fare better if adopted, experiencing less sibling rivalry and having greater access to parental resources.

Importantly they argue that Bernard and Neubauer acted independently of each other. Moreover, the secrecy was required by laws at the time. “It was illegal at the time of the study to provide information about biological families to adoptive parents, a practice that did not begin to be modified until the late 1970s and 1980s.”

Hoffman and Oppenheim conclude:

“So the study was ethically defensible by the standards of its time—principles of informed consent and the development of institutional review boards lay in the future.10 However, these documentaries demonstrate how unsatisfactory that defense is to the study’s families who live with its legacy.

The films’ message for today’s child specialists and researchers is thus something other than their surface themes of outrage and restitution. They rather provide an unusually dramatic example of the potential for harm from human participant research, even if only observational.”

I would like to draw four other lessons from this episode.

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Press Release: In Defence of Intersex Athletes

Julian Savulescu

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has announced that multiple Olympic and World Champion runner Caster Semenya and other athletes with disorders of sex (DSD) conditions will have to take testosterone lowering agents in order to be able to compete in her events.

Reducing the testosterone levels of existing intersex female athletes is unfair and unjust.

The term intersex covers a range of conditions. While intersex athletes have raised levels of testosterone, its effect on individual performance is not clear.  Some disorders which cause intersex change the way the body responds to testosterone. For example, in Androgen Insensitivity syndrome, the testosterone receptor may be functionless or it may be partly functional. In the complete version of the disorder, although there are high levels of testosterone present, it has no effect.

As we don’t know what effect testosterone has for these athletes , setting a maximum level is sketchy because we are largely guessing from physical appearance to what extent it is affecting the body. It is not very scientific. We simply don’t know how much advantage some intersex athletes are getting even from apparently high levels of testosterone. Continue reading

The Fundamental Ethical Flaw in Jiankui He’s Alleged Gene Editing Experiment

By Julian Savulescu

Chinese researcher Jiankui He of Shenzhen claims to have gene edited two healthy embryos, resulting in the birth of baby girls born this month, Lulu and Nana. He edited a gene to make the babies resistant to HIV. One girl has both copies of the gene modified while the other has only one (making her still susceptible to HIV).

On July 29, 2017, He uploaded a copy of his lecture on YouTube, “Evaluating the safety of germline genome editing in mouse, monkey and human embryos“. He finishes the lecture (see 11:22) arguing that experimentation in humans should be “slow” and with “caution”, remarking that “a single case of failure might kill the entire field”, as in the case of the death of Jesse Gelsinger. He closes with a picture of Gelsinger.

Gelsinger died during a somatic (not germline) gene therapy trial nearly 20 years ago. Early gene therapy trials were conducted with an emphasis on participant consent. A somatic cell gene therapy was developed for ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, a disorder of nitrogen metabolism. The condition comes in two forms: mild, with normal life expectancy and management by diet, and severe, which is lethal in the first year. Researchers, acting on the advice of ethicists, decided to conduct the first trials in adults with the mild form of the disease as they were capable of consenting. Gelsinger consented at age 18 and died due to a catastrophic immune reaction. He would have had a normal life expectancy in the absence of the intervention.

At the time, I wrote this paper. I argued the main failing of that experiment was failure to minimise expected harm. The design of the trial was flawed; it should have been conducted in infants with the severe form of the disease, as this would have resulted in less expected harm.

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Press Statement: Monstrous Gene Editing Experiment

Chinese researcher He Jiankui of Shenzhen claims to have gene edited two healthy embryos, resulting in the birth of baby girls born this month, Lulu and Nana. He edited a gene to make the babies resistant to HIV. One girl has both copies of the gene modified while the other has only one (making her still susceptible to HIV). 

If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer. There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it.

This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.

It contravenes decades on ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research.

In many other places in the world, this would be illegal punishable by imprisonment.

Could gene editing ever be ethical? If the science progressed in the future and off target mutations reduced to acceptable and accurately measurable level, it might be reasonable to consider first-in-human trials (with appropriate safeguards and thorough ethics review) in one category of embryos: those with otherwise lethal catastrophic genetic mutations who are certain to die. Gene editing for this group might be life-saving; for these current babies, it is only life-risking.

These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian Roulette.

Prof Julian Savulescu

Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics

Director Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

University of Oxford