Medical ethics

Crosspost: Learning to live with COVID – the tough choices ahead

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu

This work was supported by the UKRI/ AHRC funded UK Ethics Accelerator project, grant number AH/V013947/1. The UK Ethics Accelerator project can be found at https://ukpandemicethics.org/

 

As mass vaccination continues to be rolled out, the UK is beginning to see encouraging signs that the number of COVID deaths is reducing, and that the vaccines may be reducing the transmission of coronavirus.

While this is very welcome news, a mass vaccination programme is unlikely to be enough to eliminate the virus, so we need to turn our thoughts towards the ethics of the long-term management of COVID-19.

One strategy would be to aim for the elimination of the virus within the UK. New Zealand successfully implemented an elimination strategy earlier in the pandemic and is now in a post-elimination stage.

An elimination strategy in the UK would require combining the mass vaccination programme with severe restrictions on international travel to stop new cases and variants of the virus being imported. However, the government has been reluctant to endorse an elimination strategy, given the importance of international trade to the UK economy.

One of the main alternatives to the elimination strategy is to treat coronavirus as endemic to the UK and to aim for long-term suppression of the virus to acceptable levels. But adopting a suppression strategy for the long term will require us to make a societal decision about the harms we are and are not willing to accept.

 

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Mandating COVID-19 Vaccination for Children

Written by Lisa Forsberg and Anthony Skelton

In many countries vaccine rollouts are now well underway. Vaccine programmes in Israel, the United Kingdom, Chile, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the United States have been particularly successful. Mass vaccination is vital to ending the pandemic. However, at present, vaccines are typically not approved for children under the age of 16. Full protection from COVID-19 at a population level will not be achieved until most children and adolescents are inoculated against the deadly disease. A number of pharmaceutical companies have started or will soon start clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations in children and adolescents. Initial results of clinical trials seem promising (see also here and here).

There are strong reasons to inoculate children. COVID-19 may harm or kill them. It disproportionately affects already disadvantaged populations. For example, a CDC study published in August 2020 found the hospitalisation rate to be five times higher for Black children and eight times higher for Latino children than it is for white children. In addition, inoculating children is necessary for establishing herd immunity and (perhaps more importantly), as Jeremy Samuel Faust and Angela L. Rasmussen explained in the New York Times, preventing the virus from spreading and mutating ‘into more dangerous variants, including ones that could harm both children and adults’. Continue reading

Suspending The Astra-Zeneca Vaccine and The Ethics of Precaution

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson, and Julian Savulescu

The authors are working on the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project – @PandemicEthics_. This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of UKRI’s Covid-19 funding.  All authors are affiliated to the University of Oxford.

 

Summary Points

  • Preliminary Reviews suggest that the number of thrombotic events in individuals who have received the Astra Zeneca vaccine is not greater than the number we would normally expect in this population.

 

  • It is crucial that we closely monitor these adverse events. The regulation of new medical interventions always requires us to manage uncertainty.

 

  • A precautionary approach to managing this uncertainty may be important for ensuring continued confidence in vaccination.

 

  • Regulators must weigh the potential risk suggested by these reports of adverse events following vaccination against the harm that suspension of the vaccine could have.
  • The harm of suspending the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine depends on how many preventable deaths we can expect by suspending its use.

 

  • Amongst other things, this will depend on (i) how many people will be delayed in receiving a vaccine as a result (ii) the mortality risk of the people who would be prevented from receiving a vaccine, (iii) the prevalence of the virus at the time of the suspension, and (iv) the number of people who have received one dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, but not a second.

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Ethics Doesn’t Rule, OK?

By Charles Foster

Ethics and law are different. Or they should be.

Law has the power to coerce. That is a frightening power. There should be as little law as possible. But there should be more ethics than there is.

The boundary between the two domains is not absolute. Clinicians are probably more frightened of being struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) (after an adjudication on their ethics by the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service) than they are about an order by a civil court that compels their insurers to pay damages for clinical negligence. The exercise of the GMC’s statutory powers can be draconian: the existence of those powers, and the associated sanctions, is certainly coercive.

But although the boundary is sometimes blurred, it is still real. It is the job of the law to keep it from becoming dangerously permeable. In a recent case the law was caught napping. Continue reading

Cross-Post: Self-experimentation with vaccines

By Jonathan Pugh, Dominic Wilkinson and Julian Savulescu.

This is a crosspost from the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

This is an output of the UKRI Pandemic Ethics Accelerator project.

 

A group of citizen scientists has launched a non-profit, non-commercial organisation named ‘RaDVaC’, which aims to rapidly develop, produce, and self-administer an intranasally delivered COVID-19 vaccine. As an open source project, a white paper detailing RaDVaC’s vaccine rationale, design, materials, protocols, and testing is freely available online. This information can be used by others to manufacture and self-administer their own vaccines, using commercially available materials and equipment.

Self-experimentation in science is not new; indeed, the initial development of some vaccines depended on self-experimentation. Historically, self-experimentation has led to valuable discoveries. Barry Marshall famously shared the Nobel Prize in 2005 for his work on the role of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and its role in gastritis –this research involved a self-experiment in 1984 that involved Marshall drinking a prepared mixture containing the bacteria, causing him to develop acute gastritis. This research, which shocked his colleagues at the time, eventually led to a fundamental change in the understanding of gastric ulcers, and they are now routinely treated with antibiotics. Today, self-experimentation is having something of a renaissance in the so-called bio-hacking community. But is self-experimentation to develop and test vaccinations ethical in the present pandemic? In this post we outline two arguments that might be invoked to defend such self-experimentation, and suggest that they are each subject to significant limitations. Continue reading

Crosspost: Is It Ethical To Quarantine People In Hotel Rooms?

Written by

Dominic Wilkinson and Jonathan Pugh,

 

The UK government announced that from February 15, British and Irish residents travelling to England from “red list” countries will have to quarantine in a government-sanctioned hotel for ten days, at a personal cost of £1,750. Accommodation must be booked in advance, and people will need to have two COVID tests during the quarantine period.

Failing to quarantine in a designated hotel carries a fine of up to £10,000, and those who lie about visiting a red list country could face a ten-year prison sentence.

Other countries have already implemented mandatory hotel quarantines for travellers, including Australia, New Zealand, China and India. When are such quarantines ethical? And who should pay for them if they are?

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Ethical Considerations For The Second Phase Of Vaccine Prioritisation

By Jonathan Pugh and Julian Savulescu

 

As the first phase of vaccine distribution continues to proceed, a heated debate has begun about the second phase of vaccine prioritisation, particularly with respect to the question of whether certain occupations, such as teachers and police officers amongst others, should be prioritised in the second phase. Indeed, the health secretary has stated that the government will look “very carefully” at prioritising shop workers – as well as teachers and police officers – for COVID vaccines. In this article, we will discuss moral and scientific reasons for and against different prioritisation strategies.

The first phase of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)’s guidance on vaccine prioritisation outlined 9 priority groups. Together, these groups accommodated all individuals over the age of 50, frontline health and social care workers, care home residents and carers, clinically extremely vulnerable individuals, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions that put them at higher risk of disease and mortality. These individuals represent 99% of preventable mortality from COVID-19. Prioritising these groups for vaccination will mean that the distribution of vaccines in a period of scarcity will save the greatest number of lives possible.

In their initial guidance, the JCVI also suggested that a key focus for the second phase of vaccination could be on further preventing hospitalisation, and that this may require prioritising those in certain occupations. However, they also note that the occupations that should be prioritised for vaccination are considered an issue of policy, rather than an issue that the JCVI should advise on.

We shall suggest that the input of the JCVI is absolutely crucial to making an informed and balanced policy decision on this matter. But what policy should be pursued? Here, we outline some of the ethical considerations that bear on this policy decision.

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Even Though Mass Testing For COVID Isn’t Always Accurate, It Could Still Be Useful – Here’s Why

By Jonathan Pugh

This article was originally published here by the Conversation, on 22nd Dec 2020

 

The mass testing of asymptomatic people for COVID-19 in the UK was thrown into question by a recent study. In a pilot in Liverpool, over half the cases weren’t picked up, leading some to question whether using tests that perform poorly is the best use of resources.

The tests involved in this study were antigen tests. These see whether someone is infected with SARS-CoV-2 by identifying structures on the outside of the virus, known as antigens, using antibodies. If the coronavirus is present in a sample, the antibodies in the test bind with the virus’s antigens and highlight an infection.

Antigen tests are cheap and provide results quickly. However, they are not always accurate. But what do we mean when we say that a test is inaccurate? And is it really the case that “an unreliable test is worse than no test”? Continue reading

Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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Mandatory Morality: When Should Moral Enhancement Be Mandatory?

By Julian Savulescu

Together with Tom Douglas and Ingmar Persson, I launched the field of moral bioenhancement. I have often been asked ‘When should moral bioenhancement be mandatory?’ I have often been told that it won’t be effective if it is not mandatory.

I have defended the possibility that it could be mandatory. In that paper with Ingmar Persson, I discussed the conditions under which mandatory moral bioenhancement that removed “the freedom to fall” might be justified: a grave threat to humanity (existential threat) with a very circumscribed limitation of freedom (namely the freedom to kill large numbers of innocent people), but with freedom retained in all other spheres. That is, large benefit for a small cost.

Elsewhere I have described this as an “easy rescue”, and have argued that some level of coercion can be used to enforce a duty of easy rescue in both individual and collective action problems. Continue reading

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