Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen M. Meagher, PhD

Recent U.S. headlines are starting to reflect a dawning public awareness that health experts have long suspected: COVID-19 might be with us for a long time. In January 2021, almost 90% of coronavirus expert respondents to a poll by Nature considered it “likely” or “very likely” that the virus will continue to circulate somewhere on the globe for years to come. As vaccine rollout continues, the crisis in India has yet again revealed the devastating consequences of pandemic mismanagement. Only two infectious diseases have been successfully eradicated globally: smallpox, and the lesser-known rinderpest. A world in which COVID-19 is endemic might be one that requires long-term public health planning and requires bioethics to recalibrate. The global health and social impact of the pandemic makes COVID-19 challenging to compare to other infectious diseases. However, ongoing multidisciplinary analysis of tuberculosis (TB) provides one demonstration of the possible contributions of bioethics looking forward.

Pandemics as social levelers

A bacterial as opposed to viral infection, TB outbreaks peaked in different places across the world throughout the 1700s and 1800s (Barnes, 2020). During such periods, TB affected people across social strata. Affluent instances of TB contributed to the emergence of social narratives romanticizing TB as a condition striking those with a more sensitive and artistic temperament (Bynum, 2012). Prior to the emergence of germ theory, TB was considered a hereditary condition, running in families with such temperamental proclivities. The notoriety of some TB patients bears resemblance to early celebrity cases of COVID-19 that circulated on social media, normalizing infection while illustrating both recovery and vulnerability. The social and cultural variability of such notoriety is also significant, with India’s highly publicized celebrity suicides during lockdown requiring more analysis to tease apart the mental health impact of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the death of well-known human rights advocates, such as actor Vira Sathidar, from COVID-19 has prompted reflection on the pandemic’s cost to India’s creativity in addition to the devastating loss of life.

Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis print from 1922
Image description: Print from 1922 shows a girl sitting by a window watching children playing outdoors. The title reads “Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis,” with the text: “Outdoor play is as necessary to health as food or sleep. At home, let the children play in the yard or on a well-guarded roof. At school, ample open air playgrounds must be provided. The city that fails to provide public playgrounds may be forced to provide tuberculosis sanatoria.” Image source: public domain/GetArchive.

Hopes for eradication

In the early 1900s, incidence of TB declined as living and nutrition conditions improved, and as populations acquired natural immunity. Some of these improvements were prompted by critiques of industrialization, which contributed to crowded and inhumane living and working conditions (Barnes, 2020).And yet, the same romantic narratives that normalized TB in the affluent also reflected and fostered social indifference to—and scapegoating of—the poor living with TB (Bynum, 2012). The development of effective antibiotic treatment and a childhood vaccine accelerated population health gains in the 1940s and 1970s respectively. The relative influence of economic, political, and biomedical casual factors in driving the decline of TB continues to generate debate across epidemiology and social sciences. Public health gains during this century shaped hopes for global TB eradication.

Rising inequality

However, the 1990s marked a time of increased recognition of resurgent TB across all nations. As with the recent COVID-19 surge in India, a social model of health is needed to account for resurgence of TB. 20th century rates were simultaneously influenced by global policy failure to address health needs of those in poverty, cultural and political events, and new pathogen variants. The rise of HIV and AIDS produced a distinct yet overlapping pandemic, as the immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to TB co-infection. Multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) had been developing alongside use of antibiotics. Medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer has been widely critical of global economic policy, which influenced bifurcated standards of care in affluent Western nations and the global south and to the rise of MDR-TB. The moral valence of communities worth investing in is also intertwined with histories of colonialism and ongoing racial and class dynamics that we have seen recapitulated during COVID-19 within the U.S. and globally.

Resistance and its social meaning

Antimicrobial resistance raises a distinct set of ethical issues, from obligations of antimicrobial stewardship to imperatives for drug and diagnostic tool development. The potential for development of COVID-19 vaccine resistance is an ongoing concern. Some fear that SARS-CoV-2 variants have mutations that render them uninhibited by (resistant to) neutralizing antibodies, thereby creating the possibility of “escaping” the immune system response seen in the already infected and/or vaccinated. The development of immune escape is a crucial factor in determining whether COVID-19 becomes endemic. The social implications of pathogen genomics are multifaceted:

  1. First, identification of new variants is now viewed by media organizations as newsworthy, influencing public perception of how outbreaks occur. The history of TB demonstrates that public interest could wane if media organizations in affluent nations lose interest in their novelty.
  2. Second, genomic surveillance illustrates one of the most promising areas of precision public health, requiring ethical guidance for establishing trust, transparency, and community welfare. However, the history of TB demonstrates the continuing global disparities in global health surveillance laboratory capacity.
  3. Third, Emily Martin’s ethnographic work on American understandings of immunity demonstrates the interplay between depictions of the body and pathogens, expert and lay experiences of disease, and social ideals (Martin, 1994). COVID-19 has undoubtedly altered human views of their relationship to microbes and will continue to do so in unanticipated ways.

Economics & TB

Currently, almost one quarter of the world’s population lives infected with tuberculosis. Many have a latent TB infection, which is not contagious. However, if untreated, latent TB can develop into active TB. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people fell ill and 1.4 million people died from TB in 2019. India leads the world in TB cases, an often-noted harbinger of its potential role in COVID-19 global health outcomes. The social determinants of health continue to need greater policy attention: 49% of people with TB continue to face catastrophic costs, defined as greater than 20% of annual household income. Drug resistance exacerbates these economic barriers: around 80% of people with MDR-TB face catastrophic costs. The economics of COVID-19 echo these relationships. As I write, members of the World Trade Organization are negotiating details of waiving COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property rights.

Endemics and social justice

The newly renamed MSU Center for Bioethics and Social Justice is an apt reflection of the shifting role of bioethics, including its attention to matters of population health. Emeritus faculty member Judith Andre notably argued bioethics is best understood as a multidisciplinary practice (Andre 2002). Bioethics practices must change in response to persistent and rising health inequities, including in infectious disease. TB outbreaks have affected community health for millennia, impacting residents of ancient Egypt and Greece. It is Ancient Greek, too, that provides the etymological differentiation between pandemic and endemic infections: pan, meaning “all,” en meaning “in,” and demos meaning “people.” We can sustain hope that COVID-19 will fade into the background, becoming another one of many common childhood coronavirus illnesses that does not confer serious symptoms. However, as this brief glimpse of the ethics and history of TB illustrates, COVID-19 merits distinct ethical analysis to avoid complacency.

Join the conversation

Global eradication of COVID-19 through universal vaccination requires a collective effort on a scale rarely achieved in human history. How do you think bioethics can generate new collaborations to sustain the global response to COVID-19? What values are relevant to you if COVID-19 becomes in the people as well as affecting all of us in this global emergency?

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Karen M. Meagher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Ethics Research at Mayo Clinic. Her main research interest is in ethics and social implications of human and pathogen genomics. She also holds the position of associate director of public engagement in which she leads a community engagement network for the Mayo Clinic Biobank in the Center for Individualized Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 27, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.
Continue reading “Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis”

Listen: Insight into the Telehealth Landscape

No Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 24

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In this episode, Senior Academic Specialist Libby Bogdan-Lovis is joined by Dr. Sarah Pletcher, Vice President and Executive Medical Director of Virtual Care at Houston Methodist. Dr. Pletcher shares her telehealth expertise in a conversation that explores the benefits of telehealth for patients and providers, the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on telehealth adoption, reimbursement models, the future of telehealth, and more.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Center faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Listen: Supporting Michigan’s Agricultural Community

No Easy Answers in Bioethics Episode 23

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This episode focuses on work being done in Michigan to support the well-being of farmers, agribusiness professionals, and the broader statewide agricultural community. Dr. Karen Kelly-Blake, assistant director and associate professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, is joined by Community Behavioral Health Extension Educator Eric Karbowski, and Dr. Melissa Millerick-May, who holds appointments in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Environmental Health & Safety, and Michigan State University Extension. Mr. Karbowski shares MSU Extension resources available to farmers experiencing stress, including webinars, teletherapy, and other programs that help to reduce stigma still associated with behavioral health. Dr. Millerick-May discusses her ongoing work on farm safety, including tools developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both guests also discuss what led them to the work they are currently doing at MSU.

Ways to Listen

This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.

About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Center faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Lessons on eating in a pandemic

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Megan A. Dean, PhD

Though COVID-19 is not a food-borne illness, the coronavirus outbreak has drastically changed the way many of us eat. According to one survey from mid-2020, 85% of people in the U.S. “have altered their food habits as a result of the pandemic.”

Image description: Restaurant operating during the COVID 19 pandemic has a sign posted: “Please wait outside until your name is called, or if you received a text message. Thank you!” Image source: thom masat/Unsplash.

While the bare supermarket shelves of early March have been replenished (except for the bucatini shelf, apparently), many are still struggling to get adequate food. An estimated 54 million people in the U.S. now face food insecurity, “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.” This is an increase of over 17 million since the start of the pandemic.

Another change is where people eat and with whom. Restrictions on indoor dining and shifts to online work and school mean that many are cooking and eating at home more often than before. Stay-at-home orders, gathering restrictions, and the closure of dining rooms in workplaces and institutions also mean that many are limiting their dining companions to those within their own households. For some, this means eating alone. For example, in summer 2020, 87% of nursing home residents ate most of their meals in their rooms alone, up from 32% prior to the pandemic.

Emotional or stress eating is also on the rise. It may come as no surprise to those of us who have endured 2020 and the first few weeks of 2021 that many are using food as “a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness and loneliness.” These are just a few of the ways the pandemic has impacted eating in the U.S., but each offers lessons about some of the ethical challenges we face regarding food and eating.

Who stays hungry?

In the U.S., many of those who face food insecurity are children: 30 million children regularly rely on schools for free or reduced-price meals. But due to pandemic-related school closures, only 15% of eligible kids are now receiving these meals. As Cory Turner notes, many school districts have shifted to a meal pickup plan, but lack of transportation and time off from work mean that some caregivers cannot retrieve meals during scheduled pickup times. While some school districts have made creative efforts to distribute meals in other ways, many children go without.

These logistical challenges echo ongoing issues with the distribution of other goods and services essential to good health. Mitchell Katz argues that the U.S. health care system assumes that patients are middle-class; accessing medical care often requires reliable transportation, time off during working hours, or paid sick leave, which many working-class people simply do not have.

Image description: People wearing gloves and face coverings work to package food into plastic bags for distribution. Image source: Joel Muniz/Unsplash.

Like health care, food assistance is only helpful if it is accessible to those who need it. Emergency food benefits programs like the Pandemic EBT give eligible children’s caregivers much more flexibility, enabling them to purchase groceries on their own schedule. However, only six states and Puerto Rico have renewed this program for the 2020-2021 school year.

The value of eating

Asked to look ahead to 2021, many people said that when it comes to food, they were most excited to once again share meals with family and friends.

This desire for shared dining highlights the fact that eating is a rich source of value that extends far beyond nutrition, pleasure, or ostensible effects on body weight, whatever those New Year’s diet ads try to tell us.

There is social value in sharing a meal with coworkers, friends, or neighbors; cultural value in holiday meals, wedding feasts, funeral receptions, graduation toasts; aesthetic value in enjoying food and drink in the ambiance of a restaurant, café, or bar. Eating with others can also have moral value; it provides opportunities to show respect for others, build moral character, and establish moral community.

Some of this value can be found in eating at home. But for many, foregoing meals with friends, dates, colleagues, and loved ones has impoverished day-to-day life. This is not an argument against public health restrictions on dining; there are good, evidence-based reasons for many of these regulations (though more should be done to support restaurants and food service workers while indoor dining remains high risk). But acknowledging these losses enables us to mitigate them where possible, and where not, at least recognize they are worth mourning.

Eating and self-control

A final lesson can be learned from emotional eating, which is often framed as a lapse in self-control, “giving in” to cravings for unhealthy but comforting foods. I have argued elsewhere against the idea that such “mindless” eating is necessarily bad. Here I’ll highlight one way that pandemic-related increases in emotional eating point to the limited role of self-control in determining how we eat.

Image description: A person is sitting down eating a bowl of popcorn with a remote in their other hand. Their face from their mouth up is out of frame. Image source: JESHOOTS.COM/Unsplash.

For many, the pandemic has meant the collapse of eating routines and schedules alongside significant changes in physical proximity to food. Instead of having access to food only in the work lunchroom or on scheduled breaks, some people now work all day next to their refrigerators. Parents who would normally spend the school day working, running errands, socializing, or exercising, may spend much of their day in the kitchen preparing food for their kids.

As Quill R. Kukla puts it, our routines, schedules, and social and material surroundings constitute scaffolding for our actions. They constrain and enable what we do. When we are able to exercise self-control or agency, it is often because we have supportive scaffolds in place. So it’s entirely unsurprising that we eat differently when our daily structures of living have changed so radically. Recognizing this can help us avoid unjustly shaming ourselves and others for our eating, and also help us strategize more effectively about how to change that eating, if we so desire. It is important to acknowledge that now—as always—our ability to construct and inhabit supportive scaffolding is limited by work and family obligations, resources, living situations, and the like. And as many of us have learned over the past year, sometimes much of that is out of our direct control.

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Megan A. Dean, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. She works in feminist bioethics, with a focus on the ethics of eating.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Tuesday, February 4, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.
Continue reading “Lessons on eating in a pandemic”

The White House outbreak: How to criticize irresponsible leaders without getting stuck in the illness blame game

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Sean A. Valles, PhD

In a twist of fate, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at a White House celebration of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court of the United States. This elicited a wide range of reactions to seeing a gathering of opponents of strict COVID-19 control measures being hurt by the very pandemic they have downplayed. While others have worried about the moral philosophy of taking pleasure in others’ suffering, or the hypocrisy of evading rules one publicly espouses, I have a different worry. A poll shortly after the White House outbreak found that a majority of respondents believed that Trump had acted “irresponsibly” in how he had handled his personal risk of infection from people he interacted with. While I do not worry about the president being blamed for his illness, I do worry about the wider cultural practices of 1) victim-blaming by attributing a person’s illness to their personal moral failure, and 2) insisting that health is a matter of individual choice. While the distinction might not seem important at first, I will argue there is an important difference between victim-blaming the ill and holding leaders accountable for setting bad examples with their conduct and other leadership failures. The first kind of blame is toxic in a society, and the second kind of blame is an important part of a well-functioning democracy.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court
Image description: President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the President’s nominee for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, her husband Jesse and their children on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. Image source: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks.

Blaming people for their ill health is a strategy with an awful track record. It doesn’t do any good for the people subjected to “you’re too fat” messages. It doesn’t do any good for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. When directed inward, we self-blame for failing to do enough de-stressing self-care, rather than directing our blame to more appropriate targets like the needlessly bad working conditions or economic insecurities that make us stressed in the first place. Repeated messages that “sickness is the result of individual moral failure” also reinforce stigma. Stigma is a nasty phenomenon, with a “corrosive impact on the health of populations” and is particularly bad in cases of infectious diseases like COVID-19 because it actively encourages people to hide their infection, which is obviously bad for them and for others who interact with them.

A second problem with blaming people for their ill health is that ethics of blaming individual behavior reflects a misunderstanding of how health behavior works in the first place. Seemingly individualistic choices like diet, condom use, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc. are not made independently. We choose such things in roughly the same way we “choose” our religions or the languages we speak at home. Yes, each of us can choose to practice an entirely different religion (or lack thereof), and each of us can learn and use a different language in the home. Some of us do. In all of these cases, though, the vast majority of us don’t venture too far from a combination of what we learned while growing up and the cues we get from the people we interact with. We eat the foods familiar, convenient, and affordable to us. We adopt the values and beliefs (including trust in aspects of the scientific endeavor) of our communities, etc. Individual choices exist, but they exist within larger social contexts that have powerful but subtle effects on our choices.

Each of our everyday behaviors related to COVID-19 exist in a complex ecosystem of influences. Mask wearing and other social distancing measures have become intensely politicized and tied to masculinity. Masks and other health behavior measures also create new inconveniences and financial expenses. Social pressures also vary vastly from one setting to the next—in one store there are prodding questions and judgmental stares for wearing a mask, at an adjacent store there are similar pressures on those who don’t wear a mask. How we move our bodies and (un)cover our faces within these intense social pressures is not simply an individual choice.

Take the case of one of the attendees of the party at the White House, University of Notre Dame President, the Rev. John I. Jenkins. He did not wear a mask at the indoor/outdoor party, shook hands with attendees, and otherwise did not follow the standards he had imposed on members of his own university. He knew better and did not do better. Many of us have likely also gone against our better judgment to fit the incautious social distancing norms of a setting. Whether it is the university president or the university student, this is indeed hypocritical, and irresponsible in a sense. But, such blame is aside from the point, and more importantly it contributes to the sort of harmful cultural practices mentioned earlier—especially victim-blaming and stigmatizing the ill. Pointing out hypocrisy and the assigning of blame for individual health behavior distracts from the far more damaging thing Jenkins and the other leaders at the White House party did. As cultural leaders, they undercut efforts to build new norms, like public mask-wearing, the habit of greeting people without needlessly touching hands, etc.

We ought to blame Trump, Jenkins, and many other leaders who attended that party. We ought to blame them for failing in their relationships to the people they lead. That is a devastating form of irresponsibility. And it is very important to separate that kind of blame and irresponsibility accusation from the destructive form of blame discussed above: blaming people for having irresponsible relationships with their bodies/health.

The “personal responsibility” blame game has been the go-to talking point of conservative governors as they use their power to obstruct or dismantle public health measures. “You shouldn’t have to order somebody to do what is just in your own best interest and that of your family, friends and neighbors,” according to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Scolding people about “personal responsibility” during a public health crisis is a strategy based on how one wishes the world worked and not how it is actually working. Along similar lines, abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work (“teenagers: be sexually responsible by just not having sex before marriage!”), and neither does “just say no to drugs” education. Jenkins was at least right to point out that his behavior was a failure of leadership. As many of my colleagues in population health science say, we need to build a “culture of health.” That will require leaders suited to the task, and we ought to blame them when they fail in that leadership. Just skip the personal health blaming.

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Sean A. Valles, PhD, is an Associate Professor with an appointment in the Michigan State University Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy (where he is also Associate Chair). His research spans a range of topics in the philosophy of population health, from the use of evidence in medical genetics to the roles played by race concepts in epidemiology. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. He is also co-editor (with Quill R. Kukla) of the Oxford University Press book series “Bioethics for Social Justice.”

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, November 5, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Valles: We Need Healthier Schools, and Student Activists Are Stepping Up; Recognizing Menstrual Supplies as Basic Health Necessities: The Bioethics of #FreePeriodsTrump’s Attempt to Reignite the Coal Industry Is Another Health Policy BlunderPolitics and the Other Lead Poisoning: The Public Health Ethics of Gun ViolenceClimate Change and Medical Risk

Continue reading “The White House outbreak: How to criticize irresponsible leaders without getting stuck in the illness blame game”

Does YouTube widen health literacy disparities?

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The 2020-2021 Bioethics Public Seminar Series (formerly the Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series) continues next month. You are invited to join us virtually – events will not take place in person. Our seminars are free to attend and open to all individuals.

Is Seeking Information on Social Media Harmful to Your Health?

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Anjana Susarla, PhD

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Zoom registration: bit.ly/bioethics-susarla

Studies of health literacy in the United States, such as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted in 2003, estimated that only 12% of adults had proficient health literacy skills. This talk will examine how social media platforms such as YouTube widen such health literacy disparities by steering users toward questionable content. Extracting thousands of videos purporting to be about diabetes, I verified whether the information shown conforms to valid medical guidelines. Using methods from computer science called deep learning, I identify medical terms in these videos and then classify videos based on whether they encode a high or low degree of medical information. Using data from aggregate engagement with these videos, I discover that videos that are popular are less likely to contain validated medical information. A study on the most popular videos on COVID-19 likewise found that a quarter of videos did not contain medically valid information.

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Join us for Dr. Susarla’s online lecture on Wednesday, November 18, 2020 from noon until 1 pm ET.

Anjana Susarla is a Professor of Information Systems at the Eli Broad College of Business. Her work has appeared in several academic journals and peer-reviewed conferences such as Academy of Management Conference, Information Systems Research, International Conference in Information Systems, Journal of Management Information Systems, Management Science and MIS Quarterly. Her op-eds and research have been quoted and published in several media outlets such as the Associated Press, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, The Conversation, Fast Company, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, Michigan Public Radio, Marketplace Morning Report, Nasdaq, National Public Radio, Newsweek, Nieman Lab, the Nikkei, Pew Research, Quartz, Salon, the Week, Wired and the World Economic Forum.

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded! Visit our archive of recorded lecturesTo receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our mailing list.

A COVID-19 Vaccine Won’t Stop the Pandemic

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By Parker Crutchfield, PhD

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to maim and kill thousands and devastate countless others, many are pinning their hopes of returning to a life resembling normal upon the development of a vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even advised states and cities to be prepared to allocate up to 800 million doses of a vaccine in late October or early November. But it is highly unlikely that a vaccine will do much to stop the pandemic and related significant harm. For a vaccine to get us out of the pandemic, it needs to be developed, distributed, and received. Regardless of its development and distribution, if people don’t take it, then it won’t do any good. And there isn’t much reason to think that many people will take it, at least initially.

Image description: an illustration of a bottle with a white label that says “COVID-19 Vaccine” in black text. The bottle is different shades of blue with a dark blue background. Image source: Shafin Al Asad Protic/Pixabay.

Allocation Models

Recently, a team of scholars advocated for a scheme to allocate the eventual vaccine, the Fair Priority Model. This model, like most models of allocation, assumes that the vaccine will initially be scarce. On this assumption, the allocation then proceeds in phases, the first preventing the most significant harms such as death, the second preventing other serious harms and concomitant economic devastation, and the third addressing community transmission. Other models may set different priorities by, for example, putting health care workers or racial and ethnic minorities first in line.

Developing allocation models is important. But they all rest on a questionable assumption: that the people to whom the vaccine is allocated actually want it, or are at least willing to take it. Scarcity is just as much a matter of demand as it is a matter of supply.

Demand for a Vaccine

Recent evidence suggests that, generally, people won’t take the vaccine initially, even if offered. Almost 80% of people said they wouldn’t get it, if available, at least until others have done so, according to a recent CBS News poll. A return to something resembling normal life requires around 70-80% of the population to be immune.

Mistrust of the politicization of vaccine development or of the scientific practices involved may be responsible for much of the population’s apparent hesitation. But reasonable people may also simply not want to be first in line for a new immunity enhancer. Thus, whatever criteria are used, the allocation scheme must incorporate consideration of demand, not simply supply.

For example, the first allocation according to the Fair Priority Model should go to those people whose being vaccinated would most likely prevent death and who want the vaccine. If the vaccine is allocated to health care workers, the allocation must be to people who are health care workers and who want the vaccine. That is, demand for a vaccine should be just as much a component of allocation models as any other consideration.

Voluntary or Compulsory?

Allocation models must consider the population’s demand for a vaccine in order for such models to provide useful guidance on distribution. Given the apparent lack of demand, giving people the choice of whether to take the vaccine is unlikely to stop the pandemic any time soon. But demand only matters if people have an option. One way to avoid having to consider the population’s willingness to take the vaccine, and to dramatically decrease the time it takes to boost 70-80% of the population’s immunity, is to take that willingness out of the equation and make it compulsory.

Already some vaccinations are compulsory, depending on a person’s circumstances. Some have argued that the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory. One common principle in philosophy is that ought implies can. This means that what one’s moral obligations are hinges on what one can do. Even if one can justify compulsory COVID-19 vaccination, it’s unlikely that this is something that can be achieved. Compulsory vaccination is not something we can do, which means it’s not something we should do.

Consider, for example, the widespread reluctance to wear a mask and the flouting of social distancing guidelines. Wearing masks and social distancing are very minor burdens to bear for others’ well-being. While it is true that mask and social distancing mandates push against unrestrained permission to do what you want when you want to do it, others be damned, these intrusions are arguably minor (though are admittedly disruptive). Requiring 70-80% of the population to go someplace and get poked by a needle on multiple occasions or sprayed in the nose are much greater liberty intrusions. It is a pipe dream to think that a vaccine mandate would be accepted by the very same population who refuses to bear the more minor burdens of mask wearing and social distancing, which amounts to at least 29% of the population, enough to undermine our ability to stop the pandemic.

Different Baskets for Our Eggs

If administration of the COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary, not enough people will volunteer to get it. If administration is mandatory, still not enough people will get it. The vaccine’s allocation can only be either voluntary or mandatory. Either way, not enough people will get it, at least at first. The only conclusion to draw is that a vaccine is not going to stop the pandemic, at least any time soon. If ought implies can, we ought not pin our hopes upon a vaccine, because we cannot hope for it to work to stop the pandemic. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Image description: a narrow tunnel between two brick walls that leads to darkness. Image source: Peter H/Pixabay.

However, incentives and disincentives can change a person’s mind. Other than the incentive intrinsic to getting the vaccine—the preservation of human life and well-being—are there others that might make people more willing to get it, such as money or tax breaks? Or are there disincentives to vaccine refusal that might convince someone it is better to get it than it is to refuse? Carrots or sticks?

If neither, then we’re in for the long haul.

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Parker Crutchfield, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Program in Medical Ethics, Humanities, and Law at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, where he teaches medical ethics and provides ethics consultation. His research interests in bioethics include the epistemology of bioethics and the ethics of enhancement, gene editing, and research.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 8, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Crutchfield: Trust and Transparency in Quarantine; Public Health Crisis Warrants Liberty RestrictionsWe Should Tolerate and Regulate Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

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“There’s no proof that anything works!” The ethics of COVID-19 research

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics in the News purple and teal icon

By Robyn Bluhm, PhD

The New York Times Magazine recently published a long-form story about the tension between treating patients with COVID-19 by any means that might improve their chances of survival and recovery, and enrolling them in clinical trials to establish the safety and efficacy of these treatments, thus improving care both for future patients and for those who survived the trial. As with many stories about health care in the current pandemic, this article both raises perennial issues in bioethics and shows them in their starkest form: the seriousness of the condition of these patients and the lack of knowledge about how best to help them mean that the ethical dilemma described in the story is particularly clear. But a closer look at work in bioethics and the epistemology of clinical research suggests that, while the dilemma is clear, there are more ways forward than the two incompatible ways portrayed in the story.

The story begins by describing the clash between a critical-care physician faced with a COVID-19 patient whose condition was worsening, and a researcher who had enrolled that patient in a clinical trial. The former wanted to give the patient a higher-than-standard dose of the anticoagulant she was being treated with, even though this might mean that she would need to be withdrawn from the trial. The latter advocated for the importance of maintaining the integrity of the study, saying that acting on instinct instead of on evidence “was essentially ‘witchcraft’.”

Unsurprisingly, this characterization did not go over well with the other doctors in the meeting. A less contentious way of describing the situation might have been to say that, while doctors use their clinical judgment to make decisions about how best to use available evidence in caring for a particular patient, this only works when there is evidence available. And everyone agrees that, in the case of COVID-19, there is horrifyingly little evidence. This means that enrolling COVID-19 patients in clinical trials is not depriving them of standard care (care that such patients would ordinarily receive if not in the trial)–standard care for this condition does not yet exist.

Nurse with medical equipment illustrated image
Image description: An illustration of a health care worker wearing blue scrubs, head covering, and face covering. Surrounding them are a stethoscope, face mask, syringe and surgical tools, thermometer, and microscope. The background is light pink. Image source: sunshine-91/Vecteezy.

There is a lot to think about here. Importantly, it’s not the case that the doctors treating seriously ill patients had no idea what to do. They had a wealth of experience treating patients with severe viral infections, with acute respiratory distress syndrome, with cardiac arrest, or with pathological immune reactions (the “cytokine storm” sometimes seen in chemotherapy patients). Some of this knowledge informed the care of early COVID-19 patients, raising the question of which treatments could be successfully generalized to this new patient group.

The notion of generalizable knowledge is in fact central to research ethics. The Belmont Report, which guides research ethics oversight in the United States, draws a bright line between research and clinical practice on the basis of their ostensibly distinct goals. Research aims to provide generalizable knowledge, while clinical practice aims to benefit an individual patient. This way of drawing the distinction meant that when physicians depart from standardly-accepted care in the treatment of an individual patient, it does not count as research (and therefore does not require ethics review). It also leads to the problem described above: enrolling a patient in a research study requires that they forgo their right to individualized care and are treated according to study protocol. Deviations from the protocol, such as the one described in the opening of the New York Times story, are prohibited. Patients whose care does not follow the protocol will usually be withdrawn from the study.

But this sharp distinction between research and practice also makes assumptions about the kind of clinical research being conducted. Schwartz and Lellouch (1967) distinguish between “explanatory” and “pragmatic” approaches to clinical trials. Explanatory trials are designed to minimize the influence of any factors, other than the experimental therapy, that could affect the outcome being measured. These other factors include additional medications and the presence of comorbid disease. Pragmatic trials, by context, are designed to resemble actual clinical practice, where patients often take more than one medication and often have more than one health problem. Pragmatic trials may also enroll a wider variety of participants (especially older participants), permit alterations in the study protocol, be more flexible in the timing of outcome measurement; in general, they are more flexible in their design and analysis. A given trial will fall somewhere on the spectrum between “highly explanatory” and “highly pragmatic” in its design.

In the case of COVID-19, there are good reasons to favor trials that are more pragmatic. First, there are so many factors that might affect prognosis (or were previously thought to do so) – age, gender, weight, blood type, various pre-existing conditions – that the study population cannot be narrowly defined. If it is, then the results of the study will apply only to people in that narrow population. Second, care for critically ill patients is rapidly developing. Even in the absence of an established drug regimen, survival rates have been improving. This means that by the time a trial is completed, the experimental therapy will be implemented in a very different context of care. Perhaps more importantly, because of these first two reasons, a strict, explanatory trial is less likely to give generalizable knowledge than a more pragmatic one (Bluhm and Borgerson, 2018). Research that reflects clinical practice is more likely to be useful in improving clinical practice.

Robyn Bluhm photoRobyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. She is a co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 3, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: Philosophy, Mental Illness, and Mass Shootings; “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?Antibiotics: No Clear CourseTo Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question

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COVID-19 vs. Childhood Immunization? A Bioethics Perspective from Nigeria

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Felix Chukwuneke, MD

Avoiding the Impending Calamity: Our Ethical Responsibility

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned that COVID-19 is disrupting life-saving immunization services around the world, putting millions of children in both rich and poor countries alike at risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio. UNICEF, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are also worried that thousands of children could die needlessly from the diseases that were hitherto controlled through vaccination but are now being redundant because of the lockdown and compulsory quarantine by the government of the day. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore stated that there is going to be a real problem as many of these already conquered preventable diseases for children such as measles, diphtheria and cholera are in the increase across the world.

“Immunization is one of the most powerful and fundamental disease prevention tools in the history of public health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Disruption to immunization programmes from the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to unwind decades of progress against vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.”

[WHO News release, May 22, 2020]

There is no doubt Africa will be the worst hit by this quarantine and lockdown policy. In a place where lack of education and poverty are commonplace, the rebound of these preventable diseases as a result of improper policy and control implementation will be unprecedented in the near future after we are done with the pandemic. Most governments especially in Africa did not take into consideration the sustenance of immunization programs and were more focused on the COVID-19 pandemic – the devastating effect of the disease cannot be equated to some of these childhood preventable diseases.

The quarantine and social lockdown have resulted in a drop in vaccination rates leaving several numbers of children open to diseases that were hitherto prevented. There is a need to step up campaigning once again on the importance of sustaining immunization that has been in place before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 13-year-old male is receiving an intramuscular vaccination in the deltoid muscle from a nurse. His mother is standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder; they are smiling.
Image description: 2006 Content Provided by Judy Schmidt. This photograph shows a 13-year-old male receiving an intramuscular vaccination in the deltoid muscle, from a nurse. His mother is standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder; they are smiling. Image source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Philosophy of Objectivism in Public Health Emergencies Such as the Coronavirus Pandemic

The mandate from a responsible government to ensure and protect the health of the public is an inherently moral pursuit with obligation to care for the well-being of its communities. In doing so the government should refrain from immediately engaging extreme measures. Further, the widespread deployment of uniform measures should first understand the peculiarity of the environments in which they will operate. Africans across many nation states, for example, live in a diversity of settings where communicable diseases are all too common. Many individuals live in poor living conditions necessitating proper advance planning of COVID-19 pandemic management. With that management, such planning should carefully consider the sustainability of the on-going vaccinations of childhood preventable diseases. Vaccinations have had an enormous beneficial impact on population health, and the related prevention of disease has been one of the single greatest public health achievements of the last century.

The questions I pose center on an exploration of which disease should rightly be given priority based on established fact. I question why there has been so much panic and fear about COVID-19. With the introduction of this novel disease, with a mortality rate lower than that of those diseases preventable by vaccination, should we permit gains made in vaccinating children against common childhood diseases to stop? With respect to more preventable diseases, especially those that affect children, why is there such an emphasis on COVID-19? Should mothers and caregivers give precedence to the COVID-19 pandemic, deferring their children’s routine immunization? Again, in an isolation and quarantine situation with strict governmental constraints on movement, how might childhood immunizations continue, especially in rural areas (assuming that accessible immunization centers are even open and operating)?

Currently, keeping to a routine immunization regimen by parents and caregivers is a challenge, especially for those who come from remote areas. The government, through the health ministry, should ideally put procedures in place for the duration of the pandemic to encourage all women to ensure that their children get access to these vaccines. It would be tragic to view this situation as a tradeoff, thus incurring the risk of returning to the horrors of polio, diphtheria, cholera and smallpox, and in doing so, allowing many to die of already controllable diseases.

Government Needs Proper Strategizing, COVID-19 Should Not Stop Normal Existence

There is no doubt that ethical challenges abound in quarantining people compulsorily, potentially against their decisions and will because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But more challenges abound when the government fails to take the precautionary measures necessary to ensure the continuity of the vaccination program for known and preventable childhood diseases. Because some of the latter are transmitted person-to-person there is, therefore, a need to provide both individual and public protection against the disease in addition to focusing on COVID-19. Though the COVID-19 pandemic may pose a health threat to many people across the globe, I suggest that there is even greater threat to personal liberty by compulsory quarantine and economic lockdown.

There is suspicion among some that the COVID-19 pandemic has been exaggerated, and that the measures currently in place across the world are not supported by the data. This doubt is illustrated by the Tanzanian President who had samples collected from goat, pawpaw and sheep for COVID-19, assigning human names to those animal samples. Reportedly, the related test results were positive, thus feeding the concerns on the accuracy of information regarding the incidence and prevalence of the infection, influence of co-morbidities, etc.

Demystifying the COVID-19 Pandemic While Achieving Health for All

Conflicting data notwithstanding, there are those who hold the opinion that measures taken by governments around the world are based on fear and speculations, and ultimately, might prove ineffective. It is argued here, that denying people their right to personal movement has a preventable impact on established vaccination programs, programs with known effectiveness in the reduction of mortality among children. High numbers of people are still being infected by those preventable diseases. It might also be argued that at present the imposition of a uniform isolation strategy is premature, especially with conflicting reports on its mode of transmission and degree of virulence. Perhaps it would be prudent to lay emphasis on practicing safe habits, building and supporting one’s immune system, maintaining proper hygiene, social distancing, and taking care of those most vulnerable ones among us such as the children and the elderly.

Felix Nzube Chukwuneke photo

Felix Nzube Chukwuneke, is a Fogarty Trained Bioethicist and Professor of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery and Dean of Dentistry in the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) Enugu Campus. He is Chair of the UNESCO Bioethics Unit at the College of Medicine, University of Nigeria; Chair of the College of Medicine Research Ethics Committee (COMREC) and Chair of the Eastern Nigeria Research Ethics Forum (ENREF).

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, July 9, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

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Brews and Views events pivot to online format

Brews and Views icon green and purple As members of the MSU community continue to work remotely and practice social distancing, Brews and Views has pivoted to online-only “at home editions” of the series that addresses the implications and ethical considerations of biomedical innovations and topics at the forefront of scientific investigation.

The first Brews and Views: At Home Edition was held on March 20 on the topic “Novel Coronavirus Pushes our Limits— We Need to Push Back, Thoughtfully and Fast.” Discussants were Brett Etchebarne, MD, PhD (College of Osteopathic Medicine), Leonard Fleck, PhD (College of Human Medicine), Maria Lapinski, PhD (College of Communication Arts and Sciences and College of Agriculture & Natural Resources), and Richard Lenski, PhD (College of Natural Science). Dr. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering (IQ) and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, served as moderator.

The group of experts addressed scientific, communication, medical, societal, and ethical challenges presented by the novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 disease. Their goal was to inform and help those in the audience as we all navigate this global crisis. A recording of the event is available to watch on the IQ website.

On April 17, a second “at home edition” event took place, titled “COVID-19 and Our Children: Worry Now or Worry Later?” Moderators Dr. Chris Contag and Dr. Keith English, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, were joined by discussants from across the university: Carrie Shrier (MSU Extension), Kendal Holtrop, PhD (College of Social Science), Dawn Misra, MHS, PhD (College of Human Medicine), and Amy Nuttall, PhD (College of Social Science and C-RAIND).

Given the various ways that the current pandemic will impact children, they considered several questions: How will social distancing impact children? How can we use online learning to facilitate education? How can we prepare for the next epidemic? How do we deal with the direct and indirect effects and the social sequelae of this pandemic? How do we effectively communicate information to our children without increasing or generating fear?

To receive notice of future Brews and Views events, subscribe to IQ’s email newsletter. The next Brews and Views: At Home Edition is scheduled for Friday, May 29 from 5:00-7:00 pm on “The Dollars and Sense of Economic Convalescence from COVID-19.” The discussion will feature members of the local business community as well as Sanjay Gupta, PhD, Dean of the Eli Broad College of Business. Registration for the online event is open.

Brews and Views is presented collaboratively by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering at Michigan State University.