Julian Savulescu

Vaccine Nationalism: Striking the balance

Written by Owen Schaefer and Julian Savulescu

This is an updated cross-post of an article published in MediCine

On 2 February 2021, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, issues a broadside against COVID-19 vaccine nationalism, calling it “morally indefensible” and “tantamount to medical malpractice at a global scale.” Rich countries representing 16% of the global population have snapped up 60% of the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines. [1] Meanwhile, India, which has only vaccinated 10% of its population, is facing a catastrophic COVID-19 surge.[2] And the COVAX facility – an international effort to get COVID-19 vaccines equitably distributed around the world – currently only projects capacity to offer vaccines amounting to about 3% of participating countries’ populations by mid-year.[3]

COVID-19 vaccine nationalism is not the exception to normal practice. In almost all matters, countries spend the vast majority of budgets on local needs, and only a small fraction of that foreign aid, even when the latter represents much greater need. But the fact that this is normal or expected does not amount to a moral defense.

Here, we explore a question of practical ethics: what is the appropriate extent to which a country can prioritize its own people over those in other countries in the securing of vaccines for COVID-19?

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Press Release: Medical and ethical experts say ‘make general anaesthesia more widely available for dying patients’

General anaesthesia is widely used for surgery and diagnostic interventions, to ensure the patient is completely unconscious during these procedures. However, in a paper published in Anaesthesia (a journal of the Association of Anaesthetists) ethics and anaesthesia experts from the University of Oxford say that general anaesthesia should be more widely available for patients at the end of their lives.

Painkilling medications (analgesia) are commonly given to dying patients. But they may not be enough, leading to the use of continuous deep sedation (also known as “palliative” or “terminal” sedation).

“However, for some patients these common interventions are not enough. Other patients may express a clear desire to be completely unconscious as they die,” explains co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, UK. “Some dying patients just want to sleep. Patients have a right to be unconscious if they are dying. We have the medical means to provide this and we should.”

The authors make clear that their proposal is not about assisted dying, currently illegal in the UK. Instead, their focus is on options available to ensure that patients are comfortable at the end of their lives.

Put simply, some patients will want to be certain they are unconscious and unaware as their final moments arrive.

“The desire to be unconscious as a means of eliminating the experience of physical or mental suffering is understandable,” says co-author Jaideep Pandit, Professor of Anaesthesia at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK. “Unconsciousness through general anaesthesia offers the highest chance of making sure that the patient is unaware of going through an adverse process.”

He adds that “although general anaesthesia in end-of-life care has been used and described in the UK since 1995, modern multidisciplinary guidelines will be needed before this can be offered more widely. Raising this issue now is important, especially in view of international trends showing increased use of general anaesthesia for dying patients.”

Informed consent will, say the authors, be crucial in helping patients understand implications of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, and the other options they have to manage their final days.

“It is vital that patients are informed of all the legal options available to them to relieve suffering at the end of life. That includes analgesia, sedation and, potentially now, anaesthesia,” says co-author Professor Dominic Wilkinson, Director of Medical Ethics, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, UK. “The risks and benefits of each should be explained. Patients should be free to choose the option, or combination of options, that best meet their values.”

In a separate survey of the general public, published recently in the journal PLOS One, Professors Wilkinson and Savulescu found a high level of support for access to deep sedation in dying patients. Some 88% of those surveyed said they would like the option of a general anaesthetic if they were dying. About two thirds (64%) said they would personally choose to have an anaesthetic at the end of life.

Professor Wilkinson adds “members of the general public appear to value the option of deep sleep and complete relief from pain if they were dying. Our previous research indicates that the public believes that patients should be given this choice.”

The authors counter any concerns that the use of general anaesthesia for end-of-life care could hasten death. Studies show no statistically significant difference in mean survival time between patients at the end of life who receive continuous deep sedation and those who do not. In several countries, propofol infusion as used for general anaesthesia has been continued for up to 14 days. “This stresses the point that the purpose of administering anaesthesia is not to hasten death but simply to achieve unconsciousness.” explains co- author Antony Takla, Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford.

The authors believe the UK medical community should prepare for increased requests for general anaesthesia for end-of-life care, based on current trends in Western Europe and Scandinavia.

They conclude: “we have described a potential role for general anaesthesia in end-of-life care. This has, in reality, been available to UK patients since the 1990s, but is not commonly discussed or provided. There is a strong ethical case for making this option more widely available. This does not imply that existing palliative care practice is deficient. Indeed, we might see that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care is requested by, or suitable for, very few patients.”

“However, the number of patients involved should not alone determine whether this issue is regarded as ethically important. Even if complete unconsciousness is desired by only a few patients, there is a moral imperative for national anaesthesia, palliative care and nursing organisations to prepare for the possibility that general anaesthesia in end-of-life care may be requested by some patients, and to work collaboratively to develop clear protocols to address all of the practical, ethical and medicolegal issues concerned.”

Cross-Post: The Moral Status of Human-Monkey Chimeras

Written by Julian Savulescu and Julian Koplin 

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

The 1968 classic Planet of the Apes tells the story of the Earth after a nuclear war destroys human civilisation. When three astronauts return to our planet after a long space voyage, they discover that humans have lost the power of verbal communication and live much like apes currently do.

Meanwhile, non-human primates have evolved speech and other human-like abilities, and are now running the earth with little regard for human life.

The astronaut George Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, is rendered temporarily mute when he is shot in the throat and captured. In one scene he is brought before the Apes, as he appears more intelligent than other humans.

He regains the power of speech, and his first words are: Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.”

Planet of the Apes may be fiction, but this month the world’s first human-monkey lifeforms were created by Juan Carlos Belmonte at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the US, using private funding. Professor Belmonte and his group injected stem cells from the skin of a human foetus into a monkey embryo.

This part-human lifeform is called a chimera.

If implanted into a monkey uterus, the chimera could theoretically develop into a live-born animal that has cells from both a monkey and a human.

While it has been possible to make chimeras for more than 20 years using a different technique that involves fusing the embryos of two animals together, this technique has not been used in humans. It has been used to create novel animals like the geep – a fusion of a sheep and goat embryo.

Professor Belmonte used a different technique– called “blastocyst complementation” – which is more refined. It enables greater control over the number of human cells in the chimera.

But why is this research being done?

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Press Release: Majority of UK public want choice at the end of life – survey

Most people in the UK would like the option of being heavily sedated, having a general anaesthestic or to having euthanasia, if they were dying, according to Oxford research published today in the medical journal PLOS One.

Professor Dominic Wilkinson, Professor Julian Savulescu and colleagues from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, surveyed more than 500 adults in August 2020 on their views about the care of a patient who had one week to live.

The study found a high level of support for access to deep sedation in dying patients.
Some 88% said they would like the option of a general anaesthetic if they were dying. Meanwhile, 79% of those surveyed said they would like to have the option of euthanasia.
But just 64% said they would personally choose anaesthetic at the end of life and nearly half said they would not choose euthanasia for themselves or a family member.

The report maintains, ‘This study indicates that a substantial proportion of the general community support a range of options at the end of life, including some that are not currently offered in the UK.’

According to Professor Wilkinson, ‘Previous surveys have shown that a large proportion of the UK public wish to have the option of euthanasia. This study shows an even larger number wish to have the choice of being heavily sedated or even receiving a general anaesthetic if they were dying.’

He continues, ‘Currently, in the UK it is legal for doctors to provide pain relief to dying patients, and to use sedatives if that is not enough to keep a patient comfortable. Heavy sedation is used as an option of last resort. General anaesthesia is not currently considered. But members of the general public value the option of deep sleep and complete relief from pain if they were dying. They believe that patients should be given this choice.’

Meanwhile, Professor Savulescu adds, ‘Patients have a right to be unconscious if they are dying. This survey shows that the general public want to have greater choice at the end of life.’

Notes for Editors

For more information, please contact news.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

1. The survey is based on two anonymous online surveys of members of the UK public, sampled to be representative. They were given a scenario of a hypothetical terminally ill patient with one week to live and asked about the acceptability of providing titrated analgesia, gradual sedation, terminal anaesthesia, and euthanasia.
2. Across both surveys, a majority had undertaken higher education, with seven in 10 having A levels or higher qualifications. Meanwhile, just 2.4% overall had no qualifications.
3. Just over half of all respondents said they were religious with 13.8% describing themselves as very religious.

Ethics, iBlastoids, and Brain Organoids: Time to Revise Antiquated Laws and Processes

Written by Julian Savulescu
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics, University of Oxford
Biomedical Ethics Research Group, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

Jose Polo and his team at Monash University have successfully reprogrammed human adult cells (fibroblasts – skin cells) to form “iBlastoids”. These are structures which are like early human embryos. Normally when a sperm enters an egg, it produces a new cell, which divides, and these cells divide until a blastocyst is formed in the first week, consisting of 200-300 cells. In normal embryonic development, this would implant in the uterus. However, iBlastoids can’t do this as they lack the normal membrane that surrounds the blastocyst. They cannot by themselves form a fetus or baby.

They will be useful to study early human development and why so many embryos die soon after formation. They can be used to study mutations or the effect of toxins, perhaps developing treatments for infertility. So far, they have only been allowed to develop to the equivalent of a Day 11 Blastocyst. It is not clear whether they can produce the precursors to brain development:

“the developmental potential of iBlastoids as a model for primitive streak formation and gastrulation remains to be determined, and will require an international conversation on the applicability of the 14-day rule to iBlastoids.” (Excerpt from the team’s Nature article)

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The Ethics of Age-Selective Restrictions for COVID-19 Control

Written by: Bridget Williams1,2, James Cameron3, James Trauer2, Ben Marais4, Romain Ragonnet2, Julian Savulescu1,3

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

One of the major controversies of the COVID-19 pandemic has been disagreement about whether age-selective measures should be introduced, with greater focus on preventing infection in older people but tolerance of some transmission amongst younger people. Some have advocated a path of focusing efforts on protecting those most vulnerable and tolerating transmission in younger people. Others have argued for minimising community transmission. This debate involves important empirical uncertainties; including the feasibility of effectively isolating older people and the consequences of allowing infection in a large number of younger people, as well as the feasibility and consequences of alternative measures such as strict border control and quarantine. It also raises ethical considerations, including whether introducing age-selective restrictions is unjust, and whether it is acceptable for a policy to tolerate foreseeable harms.

Here we address these ethical questions and suggest that, although the appropriateness of age-selective approaches requires further consideration of the empirical evidence, ethical concerns should not prevent its consideration as a policy option.

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Are Immunity Passports a Human Rights Issue?

Written by Julian Savulescu

A shorter version of this post appears in The Telegraph

Imagine you are about to board a plane (remember that…) Authorities have reason to believe you are carrying a loaded gun. They are entitled to detain you. But they are obliged to investigate whether you have a gun. And if you are not carrying a gun, they are obliged to free you and allow you to board your plane. To continue to detain you without just cause would be false imprisonment.

Having COVID is like carrying a loaded gun that can accidentally go off at any time. The main ground for restricting people’s liberty is if they risk harming other people. This is the justification for quarantine, isolation, lockdown and other coercive measures in the pandemic. But if they are not a risk to other people, they should be free.

The ‘loaded gun’ analogy fails to acknowledge that most who are infected are significantly less harmed than gunshot victims: most recover swiftly and fully. However, in a pandemic, there is a second reason to restrict liberty: to decrease the number who fall ill and “save the NHS”. A person becoming ill not only threatens to harm others who become infected, but also increases the strain on the NHS themselves.

While research on immunity and transmission is ongoing, typically, immunity (natural or via a vaccine) both protects the individual from getting ill and reduces transmission to others. The Federal Drug Administration in the US has admitted as much. A recent study by Public Health England showed natural infection confers similar immunity vaccination (the SIREN study). There are also reasons to believe natural immunity might reduce transmission (by specific antibodies in the airways, called IgA).

An immunity passport would record a past infection (or presence of antibodies) or vaccination. It could be a bracelet, an app on the phone, or a certificate. An immunity passport would constitute evidence that a person was no longer a threat to herself or others. Because people have a human right of freedom of movement, they should be released from current lockdown if they are known not to be threats. There is no ethical basis to imprison people who are not a threat.

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Vaccines and Ventilators: Need, Outcome or a Right to a Fair Go?

Written by Julian Savulescu and Jonathan Pugh

The current UK approach to allocating limited life-saving resources is on the basis of need. Guidance issued by The General Medical Council states that all doctors must “Make sure that decisions about setting priorities that affect patients are fair and based on clinical need and the likely effectiveness of treatments”

This is most vividly illustrated in the JCVI’s strategy for vaccination: the prioritization order recommended by JVIC and that the UK Government is intentioned to follow is:

“1. older adults’ resident in a care home and care home workers

  1. all those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers
  2. all those 75 years of age and over”

and then younger age groups in descending order.

The aim of this scheme is to address the greatest need and possibly also to save the greatest number of lives. Indeed, the JCVI state that their priority groups represent 99% of preventable mortality from COVID-19.[1] The downside of this strategy is that people in each lower tier will predictably and avoidably die as they wait for the tier above to be vaccinated.

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The Libertarian Argument Is the Best Argument Against Immunity Passports. But is it good enough?

Written by Julian Savulescu and Alberto Giubilini

The government has reportedly flirted with the introduction of vaccination passports that would afford greater freedoms to people who have been vaccinated for COVID-19. However, the UK’s Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, recently announced that vaccination passports are not currently under consideration in the UK. However, the issue may linger and businesses may introduce such requirements.

One of us (JS) defended immunity passports in the context of affording people with natural immunity greater freedom during lockdown, if immunity significantly reduces the risk of infecting others.

Vaccination passports–after vaccines have been made available–can be seen as a mild form of ‘mandatory vaccination’.  Proof of vaccination could be a requirement to, for example, access certain places (e.g. restaurants, hospitals, public transport, etc, depending on how restrictive we want the mandate to be) or engaging in certain social activities (e.g. mixing with people from different households) or enable health care or other care workers to not self-isolate if in contact with a person with COVID (there were 35 000 NHS workers in isolation at the peak of the pandemic because of contact). It is worth noting that this kind of measure has already been in place globally for a long time in a more selective way, e.g. in the US where, in most states, children cannot be enrolled in schools unless they are up to date with certain vaccinations. These are also a form of “vaccination passports”, which simply do not use that term. Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificates are required to travel to certain parts of the world where Yellow Fever is endemic.

The ethical ground for restriction of liberty is a person represents a threat of harm to others. That is, the grounds for lockdown, quarantine, isolation or mandating vaccination is to reduce the risk one person poses to another. However, if a person is no longer a threat to others, the justification for coercion evaporates. If either natural immunity or a vaccine prevents virus transmission to others (and this remains to be determined), the grounds for restricting liberty disappear. This is one argument for an immunity or vaccination passport – it proves you are not a threat to others.

Moreover, if we thought there were sufficient grounds for the drastic and long lasting restrictions of individual liberties entailed by lockdowns and isolation requirements, it is at least legitimate to ask whether there are also sufficient grounds for vaccination passports, given that the individual cost imposed – getting vaccinated – is likely to be much smaller than the cost entailed by those other measures (unless the risks of vaccines are significant).

However, the more effective a vaccine is, the greater the opportunity for individuals to protect themselves. A Libertarian could then argue that the risk of harming others is nullified. If you want to protect yourself, you can vaccinate yourself. If this is true, then a vaccine doesn’t need to give us herd immunity. We can take individual responsibility.

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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