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The bio-ethics in the procurement and allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine

LAST NOV. 9, Pfizer announced preliminary trial results showing that a COVID-19 vaccine it developed with BioNTech was about 90% effective. That was followed up nine days later with final trial results and two months of safety data, indicating a 95% effectiveness rate. Meanwhile, last Nov. 16, Moderna announced preliminary results for its own vaccine, developed with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which also indicated effectiveness of about 95%.

Over the past century, vaccines have saved the lives of countless people. However, like all other medical interventions, they have to be developed and used according to sound moral and scientific principles that both affirm the dignity of the human person, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, beloved by the Lord, and promote the common good.

In so doing, the CBCP Episcopal Commission for Bio Ethics through Most Rev. Socrates Villegas, DD (Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan) and Most Rev. Ricardo Baccay, DD (Archbishop of Tuguegarao) has issued some pastoral and ethical guidelines in the use of the COVID-19 vaccine. As such allow me to share with you some of its excerpts:

COVID-19 vaccine procurement:

We hope that at least one of the many candidate COVID-19 vaccines being developed and tested around the world will be found to be safe and effective. If several vaccines are available, we advise the national government to procure vaccines with the following considerations.

If several vaccines are available, we urge the national government to prioritize vaccines that were developed without the use of morally controversial cell lines derived from the remains of an aborted child. As the Pontifical Academy of Life at the Vatican has explained, “there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems.” We must reject any vaccine made from aborted fetal cells.

If several vaccines are available, we urge the national government to prioritize vaccines developed by pharmaceutical companies that are making their vaccines available as cheaply as possible, usually at cost. Not only will these vaccines be more economical for our country but prioritizing them would encourage other global firms to contribute better to the common good by extending their corporate social responsibility programs. Pope Francis has encouraged us to favor industries that contribute to “the inclusion of the excluded, the promotion of the least, the common good or the care of creation.

COVID-19 vaccine allocation:

Initial supplies of a COVID-19 vaccine will be very limited. The World Health Organization (WHO) anticipates that nations that are participating in its COVAX vaccine allocation mechanism – the Philippines is one of these countries – will receive an initial allocation of vaccines equal to 3% of their populations. This means that we will receive vaccines enough to immunize only 3.3 million of the 110 million Filipinos who live in our archipelago. Who should be inoculated first?

The goal of a vaccination campaign should be to reduce mortality and to protect the health care infrastructure of our country. This best protects both the individual good of each citizen and the common good of the country. Therefore, vaccines should be allocated to prioritize those members of our communities who are most at risk for infection and for severe disease. As Pope Francis has explained, we must “plan the treatment of viruses by prioritizing those who are most in need.

First, all medical frontliners who are at high risk for infection because of their vocation as healthcare professionals should receive top priority for vaccinations. We need healthy doctors and nurses to treat our sick so that our people can heal.

Second, adults who are at high risk for severe disease because of their age or underlying medical conditions should be next to receive a vaccine. We especially need to shield our senior citizens who face the highest risk of death from COVID-19.

Third, essential workers whose roles are inherently risky because of necessary interactions with the public and are also important for the common good should be next. This tier would include teachers, grocery story workers, public transportation workers, police, firefighters, and national security personnel, among others.

Finally, the rest of the population would be inoculated, prioritizing those individuals who are living in dense urban areas where they are vulnerable to the virus. Note that these proposed tiers correspond closely with the recommendations of many international organizations including the WHO.

We propose this allocation plan for the COVID-19 vaccine that prioritizes those who are at most risk for infection or for severe disease because of our concern that in the Philippines, vaccines may be allocated first to those who are wealthy, powerful, and influential. This would not efficiently mitigate deaths in our communities and would delay the end of the pandemic in our country. This would be a great moral and social tragedy.

Finally, we urge our national government to provide the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone without cost to the individual. Otherwise it will not be available to the poor. Pope Francis has said, “It would be sad if, for the vaccine for COVID-19, priority was to be given to the richest!” As the pope has said many times, “The preferential option for the poor is at the center of the Gospel. And the first to do this was Jesus. […] Since He was rich, He made Himself poor to enrich us. He made Himself one of us and for this reason, at the center of the Gospel, there is this option, at the center of Jesus’ proclamation.

In closing, we commend all who are working tirelessly to end this pandemic, all our medical health professionals, our frontliners, our public health authorities, and our scientists, to our Mother, Our Lady, Health of the Sick and St. Joseph, Patron of the Dying. We ask them to intercede for us before their beloved Son, Our Lord, the Divine Physician, that we may be healed in both body and spirit. To Him, be the glory forever! Amen! (Rev. 11:36)


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