The coronavirus pandemic has stress-tested the world. Beyond challenging human fortitude, national health services and international rivalries, it has forced a series of moral choices. Many have provoked impassioned disagreement — over whether governments can force businesses and schools to close, over sacrifices for the sake of the elderly and, most bitterly and surprisingly, over whether being asked to wear a simple face mask infringes individual liberty.
The toughest moral test lies ahead. The biomedical industry and research facilities around the world are progressing towards creating a vaccine that would offer the best chance to end the pandemic and return life to normal. But the moral dilemmas provoked by the development and distribution of a vaccine will drive ever deeper debates.
The issues strike at profound divisions between schools of ethics. The newly published “The Ethics of Pandemics,” an anthology edited
by philosophy professor Meredith Schwartz of Ryerson University in Toronto, presents contrasting
views of academics, doctors and commentators along with a series of impossibly difficult case studies. The scientific, economic and
political choices involve moral issues that have divided ethicists for centuries:
The US government says the Covid-19 vaccine will be developed “at warp speed.” But vaccines take years to develop, for good reasons, and none of the benefits can be realised if they are released before they are safe. A failed Covid-19
vaccine could even compromise confidence in other vaccinations, threatening a return of measles, polio and other plagues.
Testing shortcuts are available but fraught. The first rule of deciding when they’re justified, explains Arthur Caplan, the head of bioethics at the NYU Langone hospital system in New York, is that risks can be balanced against the prospect of better data. Thus, skipping animal testing may pass muster since the data from testing humans is better.
That leads to the issue that divides teams at Moderna Inc in Boston and at Oxford University in England who are working on the two most promising attempts to find a vaccine. How much risk of harming humans can they justifiably take? The best way to accelerate the process could fall afoul of the long-established obligations of medical ethics, from the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.”
That pledge is as old as ancient Greece, it aligns with Christian teaching, and with the powerful school of rights-based philosophy identified with the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, which holds that people should never treat humanity as a means to an end. Whatever the ultimate positive consequences, Kantians argue, there is no right to harm anyone. Virtuous ends do not justify unethical means. In “human challenge trials,” which have been used to test cholera and dengue vaccines, volunteers are injected with a vaccine and then deliberately infected with the germ that researchers are hoping to neutralise. The subjects are tightly monitored, and results are available within weeks.