By Beatrice Brown
A recent BMJ article has exposed ethical concerns with the informed consent process in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) large, randomized cluster trial of the world’s first licensed malaria vaccine, RTS,S, known as Mosquirix. The study is being conducted in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya, and 720,000 children will receive the vaccine. The vaccine is currently limited to pilot implementation because of residual safety concerns from previous clinical trials, including: a tenfold rate of meningitis in those who received the vaccine versus those who did not, “increased cerebral malaria cases, and a doubling in the risk of death in girls.” Rather than engaging in the traditional informed consent process, the WHO is utilizing an implied consent process, leading several bioethicists, including Charles Weijer, Christine Stabell Benn, and Jonathan Kimmelman, to voice concern.
The WHO has defended their use of implied consent to BMJ on the grounds that “the study is a ‘pilot introduction’ and not a ‘research activity.'” A WHO spokesperson explained that in an implied consent process, “parents are informed of imminent vaccination through social mobilisation and communication, sometimes including letters directly addressed to parents. Subsequently, the physical presence of the child or adolescent, with or without an accompanying parent at the vaccination session, is considered to imply consent.” However, as Weijer rightly points out, this is not truly consent, as “We have no assurance that parents, in fact, received information about the study let alone that they understood it.” After the publication of the original article criticizing the WHO for going against international ethical standards for research involving human participants, the WHO released a response in BMJ and on their own website, contending that this implied consent process is “used for all vaccines provided through the Expanded Programme on Immunization” and that the study is in accordance with international ethical standards. Here, I further explore whether this implied consent process is ethically permissible in this specific trial by exploring the guidelines set out by two organizations.