Justifying the risks of COVID-19 challenge trials: The analogy with organ donation

Bioethics 36 (1):100-106 (2022)
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In the beginning of the COVID pandemic, researchers and bioethicists called for human challenge trials to hasten the development of a vaccine for COVID. However, the fact that we lacked a specific, highly effective treatment for COVID led many to argue that a COVID challenge trial would be unethical and we ought to pursue traditional phase III testing instead. These ethical objections to challenge trials may have slowed the progress of a COVID vaccine, so it is important to evaluate their merit. One common way of doing so is to make an analogy to other social practices that are relevantly similar and which we currently sanction. We submit that non-directed live organ donation (NDLOD) is a promising analogy. After arguing that the risks to volunteers for each activity appear similar, we explore potential disanalogies that would undermine the comparison. We note that there are differences in both the kind and certainty of benefit secured by NDLOD compared to challenge trials. We conclude these differences are insufficient to make NDLOD permissible and challenge trials impermissible. Ultimately, if we think the risks associated with NDLOD are ethically permissible, then we should think the same of the risks associated with COVID challenge trials.

Author Profiles

Athmeya Jayaram
The Hastings Center
Jacob Sparks
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Daniel Edward Callies
University of California, San Diego


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