A COVID-19 Vaccine Won’t Stop the Pandemic

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

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.

Parker Crutchfield photo

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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Trust and Transparency in Quarantine

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

By Parker Crutchfield, PhD

As of February 11, more than 1,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus, the vast majority of them in China. As the virus spreads, China has been implementing the largest quarantine in human history. The virus has spread beyond the borders of China, and has been observed in at least twenty-four countries. There is no way of knowing how effective the quarantine has been. It obviously didn’t prevent the virus’s spread, though it’s likely fewer people are infected because of it. Part of the reason that the quarantine has not worked to prevent the spread is that many in China evidently don’t trust those implementing the quarantine. About five million people left Wuhan before the quarantine locked down the city. And the images in this video are certainly not of a family trusting their government.

Trust and quarantine
A prominent account of what makes public health interventions permissible implies that public trust is necessary for public health interventions to be morally permissible. As a general rule, this is false. Public trust in Flint has been totally undermined. But in that city, public health interventions on the water supply are not only permissible, they are obligatory. So, it’s not true that trust is necessary. But that is not to say that public trust isn’t critical to the value of a public health intervention.

Trust and mistrust street signs image
Image description: two green street signs with white lettering, one reads “trust” with an arrow pointing to the right, the other reads “mistrust” with an arrow pointing to the left. Image source: Pixabay.

The value of a public health intervention, and its moral authority, is primarily a matter of the value of the benefit it achieves (the value of the cases prevented) minus the disvalue of the burdens it requires people to bear (the disvalue of social isolation). Trust may not be necessary, but it certainly impacts the benefits and burdens of a public health intervention. There is significant benefit in not having five million people evade a quarantine because they mistrust those implementing it. Who is more burdened, the family who fights tooth and nail the officials forcibly removing them from their home, or the family who goes willingly because they trust them? Mistrust creates burdens; trust promotes value. In other words, mistrust encourages people to break quarantine. If the goal is to encourage social isolation and compliance, public trust is key.

Trust and transparency
If trust is so important to the effectiveness of a quarantine, what factors promote trust? That same theory of the morality of public health interventions derives the value of transparency from the claim that transparency promotes trust. The idea is that the more open policy decisions, the more the public will trust them. As before, this is not generally true. Some research indicates that transparency actually undermines trust (De Fine Licht, 2011; Grimmelikhuijsen, 2014).

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Image description: A screen display on the side of a building showing “early discovery, early report, early quarantine, early diagnosis, early treatment” during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak in Hefei, Anhui, China. Image source: Zhou Guanhuai/Wikimedia Commons.

That is, the more people know about policy implementation the less they trust the people implementing it. If accurate, this research suggests instead that if we want people to trust public health policies, information should be withheld from them. This is in line with earlier research that suggests what people really want is for decision-makers to be empathetic and non-self-interested and that, if they are, for them to make mostly non-transparent decisions. People may want “stealth democracy” (Hibbing and Theiss-More, 2002).

So, probably it is not generally true that transparency promotes trust. But quarantine might be a special case. When the public already mistrusts those implementing public health policies, it’s not clear that there is any way to rebuild trust other than by being transparent. China was already in a tough spot, after their mishandling of the SARS outbreak in 2003, about which officials withheld information from the public and the global health community. Combined with the attempted silencing of the coronavirus whistleblower and his recent death, officials’ actions set the stage for a mistrustful public and less effective quarantine.

The next outbreak
Given officials’ actions in response to SARS, the public response to attempts to control coronavirus was probably never going to be trusting. Regardless of when the next outbreak occurred, the public was never going to trust the interventions to control it, whatever they happened to be. That was determined in 2003. Transparency now won’t help trust now, and so it won’t help the effectiveness of the present quarantine or any of the other interventions, such as the disinfectant now being sprayed. The damage to the present is done. Sadly, given that officials have responded like they did in 2003, interventions aimed at controlling their next outbreak, whenever that happens to be, will be upon a mistrusting public. When that time comes, if officials choose to quarantine, it seems likely that that quarantine will elicit similar responses: people will evade and resist, grabbing door frames as they are pulled from their homes. The virus will not be contained as well as it could have been, and more people will get sick and die. Present transparency could have promoted future trust, greater compliance, and prevented sickness and death, but that opportunity has come and gone.

There is a lesson for local officials as they try to intervene on the ongoing water crisis in Flint, the PFAS scare in West Michigan, and, in my hometown, the threat of mosquito-borne illness. The lesson is: transparency now purchases trust later. And that trust may prevent suffering and save lives.

parker-crutchfield-cropParker 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, March 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. Crutchfield: Public Health Crisis Warrants Liberty RestrictionsWe Should Tolerate and Regulate Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

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Public Health Crisis Warrants Liberty Restrictions

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

By Parker Crutchfield, PhD

Preventing Harm
Suppose your colleague was diagnosed with tuberculosis on Friday but tried to come into work on the following Monday. You would be right to call local public health officials, and they would be warranted in isolating him. Now suppose instead that he was diagnosed with lung cancer on Friday but came into work Monday. You would be wrong to call local public health officials and they would be wrong to isolate him. When a person’s health or behavior are a threat to others’ well-being, there is greater moral justification for restricting the liberties of that person. This is just the converse of Mill’s Harm Principle, which states that the only time it is permissible to restrict a person’s actions is when those actions threaten to harm another person.

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Image description: A dry and cracked river bed in Sri Lanka. Image source: Bioversity International/S.Landersz/Flickr

Recently, the Australian Medical Association declared climate change a threat to the public’s health. This comes after a similar declaration was backed by organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Lung Association. Climate change is a health emergency that threatens the health and well-being of the public. Just as your colleague is a threat to the health and well-being of those around him, climate change is a threat to the public’s health and well-being. Thus, Mill’s Harm Principle applies—in principle it is permissible to restrict liberties to prevent the harm that ensues from climate change.

Public Health Ethics
When your colleague sees his oncologist about his lung cancer, the physician likely prioritizes the patient’s well-being. But public health ethics takes a more utilitarian approach: the individual’s interests are secondary to the greater good. Instead of balancing values such as patient autonomy and the physician’s judgment about what is most medically appropriate, public health ethics primarily balances liberty, equality, and utility (benefit). This to say that, for example, one person’s liberty may be justifiably restricted so that greater utility to the public may be achieved, or that it may be permissible to sacrifice some utility so that everyone can be subjected to the same treatment. Other values such as transparency or solidarity may be incorporated secondarily.

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Image description: A large stack billows dense smoke into the air that appears pink against blue sky. Image source: Billy Wilson/Flickr

Viewing climate change through the lens of public health ethics, which interventions best balance liberty, equality, and utility? There is significant disutility of not doing anything—there will be incalculable harm to very many people. The cost of doing nothing is so high that there is almost no benefit we might achieve presently that could outweigh it. Trading the harms we will suffer by doing nothing for the benefit we might achieve by doing nothing is a bad deal for us and a much worse deal for the next generation.

It is not commonly noted, but the same could be said for liberty—by doing nothing we trade future liberties for present ones. If we want to promote liberty in the future, we need to restrict it now. Currently those who are best positioned to intervene on climate change enjoy an extensive scheme of liberties. We can cool our houses to 68 degrees in the middle of summer; we can travel by jet to anywhere we might want to go; we can preserve our food in disposable plastic containers; we can mostly go outside without fear of catching a mosquito-borne illness; we can even use plastic rather than paper straws!

Inaction and Liberty
If we do nothing in the name of preserving these liberties, we stand to lose much more. It’s pointless to travel by jet to a place that’s underwater or that’s so hot it could kill you, to say nothing of the prospects of actually living there. When the changing climate displaces those living in New Orleans, Phoenix, Miami, the mid-Atlantic, or anywhere else in the world that will be uninhabitable, those people have to go elsewhere, increasing population density in those areas. Cooling our residences and workplaces may be prohibitively expensive, along with refrigerating our food, manufacturing plastic straws, or going outside in shorts and a t-shirt. Such effects will only exacerbate social inequalities.

Or consider the worst-case scenario, one in which climate change exerts too much pressure on governments, undermining their ability to uphold the laws that democracies have agreed to, such as laws prohibiting taking another person’s stuff. In such a scenario one’s scheme of liberties might be as extensive as it could possibly be. But in that case life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short—all conditions that make it impossible to exercise those liberties and that significantly limit one’s self-determination. The dead have no liberties. For people who want to preserve and promote individual liberty, it makes sense to intervene now.

To What Extent?
If ethical intervention upon threats to the public’s health requires finding the best balance of liberty, equality, and utility, then we have justification to restrict present liberties. Doing so not only promotes greater future utility, but it also promotes greater future liberties. I have not addressed equality, but as things stand now doing nothing will exacerbate social inequalities. But to what extent can present liberties be restricted?

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Image description: two brown and white cows are shown within a crowded group of cattle. Image source: Beatrice Murch/Flickr

Given the severity of the threat climate change presents to future liberties, it may be reasonable to prohibit air travel, driving vehicles that fail to meet certain emissions standards, eating beef, or even using plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs.

I mention above that there are other values that may be considered. If it is permissible for states—in the name of public health—to restrict present liberties to promote future liberties, how can they do so transparently? Does restricting present liberties promote or undermine solidarity among the population? If restricting present liberties undermines solidarity, does it do so to the degree necessary to outweigh the promotion of future liberty, equality, and utility?

parker-crutchfield-cropParker 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 10, 2019. 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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We Should Tolerate and Regulate Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

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

By Parker Crutchfield, PhD

In November of 2018, a Chinese scientist announced that he had edited the embryos of twin girls and that the twins had been born. The scientist, He Jiankui, used CRISPR, a revolutionary method of editing sequences of genes, to delete the gene CCR5 from the embryos’ sequences. The intention was to make the twins resistant to HIV. Editing human embryos and allowing those embryos to develop into living, breathing babies was widely condemned. However, now it appears possible, likely even, that the twins’ cognition was impacted, perhaps improved. This, however, was an off-target effect—it was unintended. On March 13, Nature published a comment from a group of scientists calling for a moratorium on clinical uses of human germline editing. This call is only for a moratorium on clinical uses, not on research on editing the human germline.

Despite the moratorium, I think a good argument can be made that tolerating the clinical use of human germline editing is morally permissible. Here is one such argument. The fact that He Jiankui edited the girls’ embryos suggests that it is inevitable that some scientists are going to engage in this behavior. Imposing a moratorium is unlikely to change this—the cat’s out of the bag. Given that the behavior is inevitable, we should ensure it is performed as safely as possible in order to reduce the risk of harm.

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Image description: an illustrated image of a strand of DNA with a piece being inserted, representing CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Image source: NIH Image Gallery/Flickr.

The Inevitability Argument

I’m claiming that because clinical use of human germline editing is now inevitable, we should tolerate and regulate it. Generally, arguments of this type don’t work. It isn’t generally true that just because something is going to happen anyway, we should not only tolerate that behavior, but also make sure that it is done safely. For example, it’s true that humans murdering other humans is inevitable (unless we can cognitively or morally enhance people through, for example, gene editing!). Despite prohibitions on murdering, it still happens and probably always will. But its inevitability doesn’t mean that we should tolerate it but ensure that it is done safely. We shouldn’t, obviously.

Sometimes the argument does work, though. Sometimes the inevitability of a behavior suggests that we should tolerate it under regulation. For example, people using IV drugs is, for the foreseeable future, inevitable. Given this inevitability, it is morally justifiable to tolerate the behavior and do what we can to ensure that it is done safely. One way we do this is through needle exchanges. More recently, similar arguments support the widespread availability of naloxone for overdoses. So, sometimes, but not generally, the inevitability of a behavior justifies the tolerance of the behavior in order to ensure it is performed safely.

Reducing Harm

Why does the Inevitability Argument work in the case of needle exchanges? Why does it fail in the case of murder? One difference is that we know murder is wrong. You can’t have the concept of murder without also having the concept of wrongness. To tolerate murder would be to tolerate something that is morally prohibited. But we should be more skeptical of the wrongness of IV drug use—it may not be wrong at all, to say nothing of policies that permit or prohibit it. Even if it is wrong, our confidence that it is so should be lower. Another difference is that in the case of needle exchanges with IV drug users, the tolerance and regulation is meant to reduce harm, not only to the users, but to society. On the face of it, it seems implausible that one could anticipate a parallel policy of tolerating and regulating murder to reduce harm. Rather, tolerating and regulating murder would increase harm.

Inevitability of Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

Is the clinical use of human germline editing more like IV drug use, or more like murder? Supposing that whether the Inevitability Argument works depends on whether we know the behavior being tolerated is wrong, and whether tolerating it is intended to reduce harm, the clinical use of human germline editing seems much more similar to IV drug use than it does to murder. First, we don’t know whether the clinical use of human germline editing is wrong, unlike our knowledge that murder is wrong. Whether it is wrong or permissible or obligatory depends on a lot of factors, including on whether embryos have a moral status and whether we have a duty to future persons.

Second, what would tolerating the clinical use of human germline editing look like? It would require scientific and political oversight of methods, data, and follow-up clinical care. But more importantly, the tolerance and regulation of the clinical use of human germline editing would require that we know more about what the effects of it will be. The only way we can acquire this knowledge is by conducting research on the clinical consequences of editing the human germline. This is all to say that the intention of tolerating the clinical use of human germline editing is to reduce as much as possible any potential harms, both to the person whose embryo was edited as well as to society.

Tolerating and Regulating Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

By these criteria, the clinical use of human germline editing looks much more like needle exchanges for IV drug use. If so, then the Inevitability Argument may work, suggesting that we should tolerate and regulate its practice. But this tolerance and regulation impose further requirements: we must closely monitor the behavior and support research on the effects of editing the human germline.

Scientists assert (without sufficient foundation, I think) that the behavior is wrong. Do we really know that the clinical use of editing the human germline is wrong? If so, what general principle grounds this knowledge? What are the consequences of this general principle for other lines of scientific research? Is the clinical use of human germline editing really inevitable?

parker-crutchfield-cropParker 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, April 18, 2019. 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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