The United States Center for Disease Control announced on February 25, 2020 that despite our best efforts as a country to contain and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus (aka the Coronavirus), we should brace for an outbreak here in the United States. The anxiety over this virus begins with the fact that a working vaccine, at this writing, has not been approved for public use. Moderna, a U.S. biotechnology firm, announced only today that they successfully developed a vaccine. Unfortunately, it has just been submitted to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to begin the approval process, which may take at least a year before its released. This anxiety is compounded by the ease by which this virus can spread via modern modes of travel, and mistrust that the totalitarian mainland Chinese government has communicated the full truth about the original extent of the disease.
An international emergency like this brings together several overlapping ethical concerns and questions being studied by our colleagues. I wish to devote this post to bring to the fore a trio of these areas of concern.
Despite the lack of a vaccine specific for treating COVID-19, the cumulative benefits of receiving all the vaccinations necessary boosts both individual immunity and community (or herd) immunity. This may not stop COVID-19, but it may slow its spread and dampen the severity of its symptoms. Unfortunately, a small minority of U.S. Roman Catholics, and a larger minority of persons in the United States refuse to vaccinate both themselves and their children. The Roman Catholic Church must issue a binding teaching which declares and explains why any Catholic who does not vaccinate either themselves or their children for any reason, save for the sole exception if a particular vaccine carries a side effect detrimental to their health, and that side effect is confirmed by a qualified medical professional, that person is committing a morally wrong act contrary to the common good.
The argument Catholics opposed to vaccination field is that the genetic source material made to develop most vaccines come from aborted fetuses. This makes taking the medicine sinful because one is benefiting at the expense of someone who is essentially an innocent human person who was killed. This argument carries little-to-no standing on the following grounds. First, the cells used to manufacture the vaccines we receive are “descendent cells”. In other words, they are not cells from aborted fetuses, but reproduced cells whose lineage can be traced to those fetuses from which the cell line was originally sourced. Catholics make the query whether we should hold out for a vaccine whose cell lineage cannot be traced back to an aborted fetus. There does exist effective vaccine alternatives manufactured from cells whose lineage cannot be traced to aborted fetuses, and the Church then counsels doctors and patients alike to use those alternatives. Unfortunately, in seeking vaccination against a disease, our options are often limited to only one choice. In that case, the moral obligation to protect community health, the health of our family members, and our health, takes precedence over the compromised origins of these vaccines. This point is brought into sharper relief when one understands that any one of us can carry and pass on a disease without ever developing any symptoms. Our moral priority then is to protect the common good, especially those with developing immune systems (children) or compromised immune systems (the sick or the elderly), by not allowing ourselves to become unwitting carriers of disease.
Having put paid that argument against vaccination, the ethics surrounding vaccines should focus on their availability. Now, both government agencies and private corporations, at the expense of taxpaying citizens and investors and customers, respectively, produce vaccines. Each expect a return on their investment. Government laboratories use their research to boost private sector employment in those countries with the research, manufacturing, and distribution infrastructure to do that. Private companies expect a profit to pay expenses, reward investors who risked money on the company, and fund future research. However, the fact that we must stop regional epidemics from growing into pandemics makes public health an issue requiring global solidarity. Catholic social teaching argues that the common good, on the local, national, and international level includes safeguarding health. Therefore, the Church calls for the free exchange of scientific and technical knowledge and technology transfer. Consequently, developing nations construct a capacity autonomous from industrialized nations to manufacture biotechnology to combat disease. At this writing, three other companies besides Moderna, and the Australian government, claim the capacity to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. This outbreak demonstrates that if our medical research capacity was more spread out internationally, as the Church calls for, we would be farther along in developing and deploying a vaccine. Negotiating an equitable solution where a COVID-19 vaccine is available on the basis of need and not ability to pay, and recouping the costs incurred by those who research and develop a successful vaccine is an acute ethical question, with Catholic teaching giving the former an unqualified precedence over the latter.
Lastly, the COVID-19 outbreak is an ecological concern beyond maintaining global human health. According to a February 21, 2020 report by the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. While the research is ongoing and not yet conclusive, the likelihood that this virus came from bats, and jumped the species barrier to us through another species host, underscores that care for our environment is tantamount to caring for ourselves. This begins with better maintaining sanitary markets like the one in Wuhan where this virus was discovered. As we develop our planet and encroach into habitats, are we exposing ourselves to viruses that are either dormant, or haven’t jumped to us because of our lack of proximity to it? This outbreak may serve as another warning to tread the Earth more lightly.
The COVID-19, Coronavirus outbreak is a product of human folly and myopia rendering us unnecessarily vulnerable to the disease this virus will bring. Our failure to inoculate ourselves and compromise community immunity, lopsided human development which limits our capacity to research and distribute a preparation which would stop the virus’ spread and cure its victims, and perhaps our relentless need to expand our footprint, exposing us to new organisms against which we have no defense, all are symptoms of our lack of a consistent practice of an ethic of life for ourselves, authentic development for the other, and the care of our common home.