Pandemic ethics: the case for risky research

Research Ethics 16 (3-4):1-8 (2020)
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Abstract

There is too much that we do not know about COVID-19. The longer we take to find it out, the more lives will be lost. In this paper, we will defend a principle of risk parity: if it is permissible to expose some members of society (e.g. health workers or the economically vulnerable) to a certain level of ex ante risk in order to minimize overall harm from the virus, then it is permissible to expose fully informed volunteers to a comparable level of risk in the context of promising research into the virus. We apply this principle to three examples of risky research: skipping animal trials for promising treatments, human challenge trials to speed up vaccine development, and low-dose controlled infection or “variolation.” We conclude that if volunteers, fully informed about the risks, are willing to help fight the pandemic by aiding promising research, there are strong moral reasons to gratefully accept their help. To refuse it would implicitly subject others to still graver risks.

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