Vaccines, humane research, and moral judgment

In the continued quest for a COVID-19 vaccine, this week’s issue of Science contained an editorial pointing to the misguided comments of two French doctors, who had suggested (in the editorialist’s words) that “ethical and safety standards for testing vaccines and treatments in [African] nations are lower than in other countries.” 

While social media was quick to confront the doctors’ imprudent remarks, this episode provided the editorialist with a chance to reflect on some basic principles of scientific research involving human subjects, including: robust community engagement with clinical research, the ethical conduct of this research, and ensuring that the research is regulated, monitored, and analyzed within Africa. 

Surely we’d rather not depend upon social media to police today’s scientists, but the public outrage at what was perceived to be demeaning of fellow humans does bring into sharper focus the relationship between science and the common good—in particular, where health sciences are ostensibly deployed for the benefit of human beings.  

In short, we must ensure that scientific research is bounded by the ethical and humane treatment of its subjects. Contra the facile notion that science operates within a clinical, purely empirical environment, the laboratories and experimentation of science are always located within a moral universe requiring human judgment. 

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