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.
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.
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, 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.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Crutchfield: Trust and Transparency in Quarantine; Public Health Crisis Warrants Liberty Restrictions; We Should Tolerate and Regulate Clinical Use of Human Germline EditingClick through to view references