Pandemic Ethics

Press Release: UK Approves COVID-19 Challenge Studies

Responses to the UK COVID-19 Challenge Studies: 

“In a pandemic, time is lives.  So far, over a million people have died.

“There is a moral imperative to develop to a safe and effective vaccine – and to do so as quickly as possible.  Challenge studies are one way of accelerating vaccine research.  They are ethical if the risks are fully disclosed and they are reasonable.  The chance of someone aged 20-30 dying of COVID-19 is about the same as the annual risk of dying in a car accident.  That is a reasonable risk to take, especially to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  It is surprising challenge studies were not done sooner.  Given the stakes, it is unethical not to do challenge studies.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Co-Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

“Human challenge studies are an important and powerful research tool to help accelerate our understanding of infectious diseases and vaccine development.  They have been used for many years for a range of different infections.

“The announcement of the UK Human Challenge Program is a vital step forward for the UK and the world in our shared objective of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.  With cases climbing across Europe, and more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide, there is an urgent ethical imperative to explore and establish COVID-19 challenge trials.

“All research needs ethical safeguards.  Challenge trials need to be carefully designed to ensure that those who take part are fully informed of the risks, and that the risks to volunteers are minimised.  Not everyone could take part in a challenge trial (only young, healthy volunteers are likely to be able to take part).  Not everyone would choose to take part.  But there are hundreds of young people in the UK and elsewhere who have already signed up to take part in COVID challenge studies.  They deserve our admiration, our support and our thanks.”

Prof Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Further Research

Read more about the ethics of challenge studies:

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Pandemic Ethics: Should Santa Claus Deliver Christmas Presents This Year? Preparing For Our First COVID-19 Christmas

Written by: Alberto Giubilini; Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, &

Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

It’s that time of the year again, when Christmas decorations start to appear way too early in shopping malls. It’s beginning to look a bit too much like Christmas. Except that, being it 2020, of course this year “it will be different”.

Pubs are very optimistically accepting bookings for Christmas dinners, but many Christmas markets are (un)fortunately being cancelled. You might still see your distant relatives on Christmas day, but (un)fortunately no more than 6 of them at any one time.

Amidst the inevitable confusion, one obvious question is whether Santa Claus should deliver presents this year.

There are various factors to consider when deciding what Santa – but indeed everyone else – should be allowed to do over Christmas. The most relevant are probably the following:

  1. COVID-19 infection rate over Christmas.
  2. Risks and benefits for others of Santa’s job.
  3. Risks and benefits for Santa

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Coronavirus: Why I Support the World’s First COVID Vaccine Challenge Trial

Lesterman/Shutterstock

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

Two months ago I received an email from a colleague inviting me to join a global campaign to support a form of vaccine research that would involve deliberately infecting volunteers with COVID-19. This might seem like a strange idea. Some people have raised concerns about this research. Some even think that it would violate the Hippocratic oath for a doctor to expose research participants to harm in this way.

But as a medical doctor, an ethicist and a researcher, I strongly support COVID-19 challenge trials. I replied immediately and have joined over 150 academics on an open letter advocating preparation for these trials. This week, there are reports that the first of these trials will start in London in 2021. Special research facilities are being developed, and several thousand young people in the UK have already volunteered to be part of such a trial. Continue reading

Video Series: Covid-19 Who Should Be Vaccinated First?

After healthcare and some other essential workers, it might seem the most obvious candidates for a Covid-19 vaccine (if we have one) are the elderly and other groups that are more vulnerable to the virus. But Alberto Giubilini argues that prioritising children may be a better option as this could maximise the benefits of indirect immunity for elderly and other vulnerable groups.

Video Series: Are Coronavirus Contact Tracing Apps Safe?

Are contact tracing apps safe?  Dr Carissa Véliz (Oxford), author of ‘Privacy is Power’, explains why we should think twice about using such apps. They pose a serious risk to our privacy, and this matters, even if you think you have nothing to hide!

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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Guest Post- Pandemic Ethics: Your Freedom Really Matters. So What?

Written by Farbod Akhlaghi (University of Oxford)

The coronavirus pandemic rages on. To the surprise of many, the enforcement of mask wearing, imposition of lockdowns, and other measures taken to try to halt the pandemic’s march have been met with some heavy and vocal resistance. Such resistance has materialised into protests in various countries against these measures taken by states, companies, and other organisations to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

There are a range of reasons one might object to these measures. One reason that has repeatedly been voiced – sometimes shouted through angry un-masked mouths – is that these measures unjustly affect the freedom of those subject to them. The thought is that, for example, being forced to wear a mask, or denied entry into somewhere without a mask, is an unjust restriction of one’s freedom, presumably either to wear whatever they choose or to be free from the interference of others in going about one’s business.

Whatever good reasons there may be to object to these pandemic mitigating measures, I believe this one is simply a mistake. It is certainly true that our freedom, both to do things and from unjust interference, matter morally – they matter a lot too. But the moral significance of freedom, and the mere fact that measures like enforcing mask wearing, imposing lockdowns, and restricting movement do curtail such freedom, does not show that these measures unjustly restrict the freedom of those subject to them during this pandemic.

Failure to see this may be due to a failure to recognise the distinction, drawn by the moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, between the infringement and the violation of a right.

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Pandemic Ethics: Testing times: An ethical framework and practical recommendations for COVID-19 testing for NHS workers

Dr Alberto Giubilini, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Uehiro  Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities was part of an independent rapid-response project to develop an ethical framework for COVID-19 swab testing for NHS workers. Following a stakeholder consultation, the expert group have published a report identifying ethical considerations and providing practical guidance and recommendations to identify good practice and support improvement.

The report is available online. 

Video Series: Why Parental Status Matters When Allocating Scarce Medical Resources

Which patients should we treat, if we can’t treat them all? The Covid-19 pandemic has brought questions about how to allocate scarce medical resources to the forefront. In this Thinking Out Loud interview with Katrien Devolder, Philosopher Moti Gorin (Colorado State University) argues that parents (or primary caregivers) of a dependent child should (sometimes) get priority. A controversial position that nevertheless has some intuitive appeal!

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