30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

So, John sat down with Nir to discuss the idea of deliberately exposing healthy young volunteers to corona virus in order to accelerate the efficacy phase of vaccine testing. Prior to this pandemic, many felt challenge testing with a deadly disease was beyond the ethical pale. Eyal et. al propose that despite its checkered history (think coerced deadly medical procedures), there is an interesting philosophical case to be made in its favor.

Want to read more coverage of challenge testing? Start with this Washington Post article, or this one.

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Books in Dark Times returns next week with Australian scholar Vanessa Smith singing the praises of the uncategorizable Marion Milner–as well as one of John’s favorite novelists from Down Under. The following week, Modernist Paul Saint-Amour wins John’s heart by unpacking the metaphysics of time travel in such SF born-classics as Arrival, perhaps the most octopus/Heptapod-loving film of recent years.

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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