Vaccines: An ethical puzzle

Making sure that everyone is vaccinated is good for everyone. How can we get there?

Vaccines: An ethical puzzle
A man comforts a woman as she receives a vaccine against COVID-19 at a drive-through clinic. / Image courtesy iStock.

A vaccine! Or four! The joy, relief, and trepidation of such a fantastic breakthrough echoed across the globe. But the news of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines also brought with it thorny ethical and moral questions: What do we owe one another, and can saving someone else protect yourself?

Half of the world’s vaccine supply was quickly claimed by the world’s wealthiest countries. These are places where many have enough wealth to buy the safety of space from others. Pope Francis spoke against such vaccine nationalism. “If anyone should be given preference, let it be the poorest, the most vulnerable, those who so often experience discrimination because they have neither power nor economic resources,” he told members of the World Health Organization.

Nicole Boardman ’22, the health care ethics intern with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, pondered questions of fairness, part of the center’s focus on vaccine policy. “Will our moral obligations always stop at our own borders?” she asks.

If it does, so much the worse for all of us.

Boardman notes that allowing the virus to spread allows it to evolve—making new variations that may spread more quickly or evade existing tools to stop it. At the current rate of distribution and manufacturing, the British Medical Journal predicts we won’t see worldwide herd immunity until 2023 at the earliest.

Morality is more than a pleasant thought puzzle. It could hold the key to ending the pandemic for us all.

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