Person smoking cigarette.

Should Smokers be Prioritized for COVID Vaccine?

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on February 2, 2021. 

By Jeff Neal

Should smoking be among the pre-existing health risks that qualify people for priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine? In a Zoom interview with Harvard Law Today, public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10 says the answer is yes. 

CDC guidelines, which most states are following as they launch mass vaccination programs, say people with certain underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for hospitalization or death if they contract COVID-19 (also known as co-morbidities) should receive access to the vaccine before the general population. In Massachusetts, these individuals will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Group 4 of Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination rollout plan. But many have been surprised to see smoking listed among the qualifying conditions, alongside cancer and heart disease.

Shachar, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, says that smoking is often the result of structural and biological factors that make it more prevalent in historically marginalized communities, and that denying priority access for smokers would reinforce existing inequities. More practically, she says, “every time a person gets vaccinated, it’s good for the community.” 

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Person receiving vaccine.

What You Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on December 3, 2020. 

By Jeff Neal

The race to approve and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19 got a huge shot in the arm this week.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom approved a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. On the same day in the United States, a panel of experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a first-stage plan for distributing the vaccine to some of the most at-risk Americans. Separately, another advisory committee is set to meet twice in the coming weeks to evaluate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the safety and efficacy of both the Pfizer vaccine and a similar one produced by Moderna.

To better understand the impact of these developments, Harvard Law Today recently spoke with public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, about the vaccine, who is likely to get it first, and whether employers and states can require people to get vaccinated.

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Spoonful of sugar.

From “A Spoonful of Sugar” to Operation Warp Speed: COVID-19 Vaccines and Their Metaphors

By Ross D. Silverman, Katharine J. Head, and Emily Beckman

As professors studying public health policy, narrative medicine, and how providers and the public communicate about vaccines, we recognize the power and peril of using the rhetorical tool of metaphors in vaccination and, more broadly, the COVID-19 response efforts.

Metaphors can be an effective shorthand to help people understand complex ideas, but we also must remain cognizant of the many ways metaphors may distort, divide, or misrepresent important details.

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WASHINGTON MAY 21: Pro-choice activists rally to stop states’ abortion bans in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on May 21, 2019.

The Harms of Abortion Restrictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Beatrice Brown

Several states, including Texas, Ohio, and Alabama, have dangerously and incorrectly deemed abortions a non-essential or elective procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stated reason for these orders is to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE), a scarce, important resource for protecting health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

However, these policies restricting abortion are unlikely to conserve PPE, and more importantly, they mischaracterize the nature and importance of abortions.

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mask, gloves, goggles.

Are Clinicians Without PPE Morally Obligated to Care for COVID-19 Patients?

By Beatrice Brown

There is currently a dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) at hospitals across the United States, especially in areas that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19.

PPE is essential to protecting those on the front lines of the pandemic – the President of the American Medical Association (AMA) has said that without adequate PPE, we may face a shortage of clinicians to treat COVID-19 patients, in addition to other shortages of critical resources.

Without adequate PPE, are clinicians morally obligated to provide care to patients who are either presumed positive for COVID-19 or who definitely have the virus?

Here, I argue that to treat patients without adequate PPE is supererogatory but not obligatory. In other words, this is a noble and praiseworthy act, but clinicians should not be obligated to perform these heroic acts, nor should we blame them, morally, for their decision to refuse to provide care.

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hospital equipment, including heart rate monitor and oxygen monitor functioning at bedside.

The Ethical Allocation of Scarce Resources in the US During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Bioethics

By Beatrice Brown

Critical resources for handling the COVID-19 pandemic, including ventilators and ICU beds, are quickly becoming scarce in the US as the number and density of infections continue to rise. Leading bioethicists have crafted guidelines for the ethical rationing of these scarce resources during the pandemic. On March 16, The Hastings Center published “Ethical Framework for Health Care Institutions and Guidelines for Institutional Ethics Services Responding to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” detailing three ethical duties for health care leaders: 1) duty to plan; 2) duty to safeguard; and 3) duty to guide. The report also contains a compilation of materials on resource and ventilator allocation.

More recently, on March 23, two insightful pieces were published in the New England Journal of Medicine: “The Toughest Triage — Allocating Ventilators in a Pandemic” by Truog, Mitchell, and Daley, and “Fair Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources in the Time of Covid-19” by Emanuel et al. These two pieces complement each other well and lay a crucial foundation for the inevitable resource allocation that clinicians and hospitals will be forced to practice in the coming weeks. As such, here, I summarize the central takeaways from these two articles while understanding their recommendations in tandem, as well as reflect on the importance of bioethics during these times of medical crisis and how the work of this field must adapt to changing circumstances. Read More

Intelligent Transparency and Patient Safety: New UK Government Patient Safety Plans Launched

By John Tingle

One thing is clear when commentating on patient safety developments in the UK is that there is hardly ever a dull moment or a lapse of activity in patient safety policy development .Something always appears to be happening somewhere and it’s generally a very significant something. Things are happening at a pace with patient safety here.

On the 3rd March 2016 the Secretary of State for Health,The Rt Honourable Jeremy Hunt announced a major change to the patient safety infrastructure in the NHS with the setting  up from the 1st April 2016 of the independent Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch. In a speech in London to the Global Patient Safety Summit on improving standards in healthcare he also reflected on current patient safety initiatives.This new organisation has been modelled on the Air Accident Investigation Branch which has operated successfully in the airline industry. It will undertake, ‘timely, no-blame investigations’.

The Aviation and Health Industries
The airline industry has provided some very useful thinking in patient safety policy development when the literature on patient safety in the UK is considered. The way the airline industry changed its culture regarding accidents is mentioned by the Secretary of State in glowing terms. Pilots attending training programmes with engineers and flight attendants discussing communications and teamwork. There was a dramatic and immediate reduction in aviation fatalities which he wants to see happening now in the NHS. Read More

What’s Wrong with Selling Organs (and a Taxonomy of Taboo Trade/Commodification Objections)

By I. Glenn Cohen

Many people – non-philosophers especially, but some philosophers as well – loosely use the term “commodification” as an objection to a “taboo trade”. By “taboo trade” I mean the sale of a good or service such as an organ, sperm, egg, surrogacy, prostitution, etc.

This is unhelpful since it means that people often talk past each other and substitute rhetoric for reason.

In my own work I have tried to disentangle various separate objections falling within this family. This is also important in determining what, if any, form of regulation might help combat or minimize the ethical concern. It is also important because it helps us see that some forms of regulation might improve matters as to one of the ethical objections while at the same time worsen matters as to another one of the ethical objections.

For this blog post I wanted to share my taxonomy of ethical objections drawn from a recent paper I did on objections to buying and selling organs and the potential ways various regulatory tools can and cannot be used to deal with them: Regulating the Organ Market: Normative Foundations for Market Regulation, 77 Law and Contemporary Problems (forthcoming Nov 2014)  In the paper itself it is set out more formally with supporting citations, here I present just excerpts more informally.

While I illustrate the taxonomy of arguments using the buying and selling of organs, in fact the same categories can be used for any taboo trade (prostitution, selling eggs, commercial surrogacy, etc):

1. Corruption

The basic idea behind what I have elsewhere called the “corruption” argument is that allowing a practice to go forward will do violence to or denigrate our views of how goods are properly valued. This argument is sometimes labeled the “commodification” argument, but because that term is also used in a way that encompasses some of the other arguments I discuss below, I prefer the more specific label of “corruption.” The American Medical Association, among others, has voiced this kind of objection in the domestic organ-sale context, suggesting paying kidney donors would “dehumanize society by viewing human beings and their parts as mere commodities.”

We can distinguish two subcategories of this objection, which I have elsewhere called “consequentialist” and “intrinsic” corruption. “Consequentialist corruption” justifies intervention to prevent changes to our attitudes or sensibilities that will occur if the practice is allowed —for example, that we will “regard each other as objects with prices rather than as persons.” This concern is contingent and to be successful must rely on empirical evidence, in that it depends on whether attitudes actually change. By contrast, “intrinsic corruption” is an objection that focuses on the “inherent incompatibility between an object and a mode of valuation.” The wrongfulness of the action is completed at the moment of purchase irrespective of what follows; the intrinsic version of the objection obtains even if the act remains secret or has zero effect on anyone’s attitudes.

2. Crowding Out  Read More