Shropshire Star comment: Ethical dilemma facing public

By Shropshire Star | Opinions | Published:

Those seeking to find an effective vaccine which could lift us out of the coronavirus nightmare face an ethical dilemma which goes back to the very dawn of vaccination.

Ethical dilemma facing public

When Edward Jenner, the father of immunology, wanted to test his hunch that getting relatively benign cowpox provided protection against getting deadly smallpox, he used an eight-year-old boy as his guinea pig.

Young James Phipps did not die. So Jenner was able to declare his experiment a success. The effectiveness of vaccination was proven.

It would be unthinkable for Jenner’s methods to be used today. But as Covid-19 continues to claim a heavy toll, and the economic effects build up, the hunt for a vaccine or effective treatment is urgent, which does raise the question of just how far we are prepared to go to speed up the process.

Giving volunteers a test vaccine, and then waiting to see what happens if and when they are exposed to coronavirus, will mean it takes ages before there are meaningful results.

Dr Adair Richards at the University of Warwick believes that in the current circumstances it is not unethical to speed things up by infecting vaccine volunteers. Why, he argues, it is not unusual for people in society willingly to expose themselves to personal risk.

“Speeding up vaccine development even by a few weeks or months could result in saving many lives,” he says.

The volunteers would, of course, know exactly what they were letting themselves in for. Presumably in Dr Richards’ scenario they would be young people, who are already known to be at substantially less risk from Covid-19.

Apart from the moral questions over adopting such a path, there is also a question of whether what some might consider a drastic step is needed when measures to change the way we interact already seem to be working. The vaccine trials may yet bear fruit. But, whatever happens, we may be in for a long wait. There’s still no vaccine for SARS, for instance.

And while we are unable to bank on developing a Covid-19 vaccine, we have to beat, or at least control, this disease without one.


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