Testing Vaccines

This is a comment on the morality of using human guinea pigs to test medical procedures which have the potential to save lives.

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In April 2020 a Covid vaccine was developed in the UK and tested on people. It proved that it wasn’t harmful (at least in the short term). The other thing that was needed was to see if it provided immunity to the Corona virus. To find out whether this was the case, the people who received the vaccine would have to be exposed to the virus. If, after two or three weeks, none had developed Covid symptoms, then the vaccine could be considered beneficial and steps could be taken to produce the vaccine in bulk and vaccinate the population. This could then prevent tens or hundreds of thousands of further deaths.


But . . . the people vaccinated were not exposed to the virus, because that might cause some to get the disease and maybe die. Going on available statistics, if 100 young healthy people were vaccinated and exposed and the vaccine didn’t work, then maybe 20 to 50 might develop the disease and possibly one or two could die. This was clearly an unacceptable risk, so we had to just settle for a few more tens of thousands of deaths from people getting the disease without vaccination.

To some, this defies logic. But the reason is that, if one of the test volunteers does die as a result of the test, the courts will impose penalties possibly amounting to billions of dollars on the company that did the test. On the other hand, no one will be blamed if a few more tens of thousands of victims die from the disease because no vaccine is available.

From the point of view of the pharmaceutical companies, it is a case of not wanting to be sued into oblivion. From the point of view of the courts, it’s a case of applying laws designed for one situations in a totally different situation where mos people would feel that they should not be applicable. This happens because, to judges, legal precedent trumps common sense and doing the morally right thing. From the point of view of the prosecuting lawyers, it is a case of how much money they can make from the whole affair and, of course, the money is more important than the lives.

It would be quite possible for legislators to change this situation. A vaccine might then be produced much more quickly, saving maybe hundreds of thousands of lives, at the possible cost of maybe a few dozen lives.

Of course, it would be wrong to vaccinate and expose victims against their will. But there would be more than enough volunteers, particularly from those in situations where they are very likely to be exposed to the virus anyway. The first test could be with young healthy people, who are unlikely to die even if they do become positive. It that bears out the efficacy of the vaccine, then it could be tested on a wider cross section of people. If it still works, then the vaccine would be ready to go.

Many companies developing vaccines are performing long-time-line tests on animals (e.g. mice then monkeys, before even trying the vaccine on a human. Such tests add months to the time line, at the potential cost of large numbers of lives. With the number of vaccines being developed around the world, without the legal restriction, we might well have had one ready to go months earlier than what actually was the case.

But then, people’s lives don’t really matter. Apportioning and avoiding blame and legal repercussions and costs is what matters.

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Image Acknowledgements
Vaccination: Brisbane North PHN