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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.