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Covid-19 Vaccine Boosters – Are they Ethical?

By: Andrew Silverio, Esq.

Throughout the day, the FDA will be discussing whether the general American public should start getting COVID-19 vaccine booster doses.  This will include presentations from Pfizer, who has been pushing for booster shots across the general population, but the FDA will provide its own interpretation of available data as well.  Even before any guidance from the FDA, Dr. Fauci and the NIH have been advocating for booster doses for months.

However, with a third and arguably less crucial dose being contemplated for wide swaths of healthy people in the general population, many, even accepting that a booster dose may provide significant additional protection, are questioning whether it’s ethical to even be considering booster doses when so much of the developing world is still without any protection at all.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization on August 4 called for a worldwide moratorium on booster doses through the end of the September, citing a goal of having 10% of the world’s population vaccinated.  This is of course little more than a recommendation, and with much of the world’s more prosperous countries surging ahead with protecting their own citizens as much as possible, this goal is seeming more and more like fantasy.  Notably, much of Africa is currently at less than 2% vaccination rates, with several countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria below even the 1% mark.

Beyond the clear issues of equity and whether it is ethical to be shoring up the already significant protection of vaccinated and healthy people in the developed world, there are solid arguments that the worldwide population – those in the developed world included – have more to gain by casting a wider and more equitable net with vaccine distribution.  In addition to saving more lives by extending the protection vaccines provide against serious illness and death, dangerous new variants can pop up at any time, and this is of course more likely when the disease is allowed to rampage through unprotected populations.

The United States does lead the world in vaccine donations (see https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/08/03/1023822839/biden-is-sending-110-million-vaccines-to-nations-in-need-thats-just-a-first-step), but the world’s wealthier countries, ourselves included, simply can and should do more.