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Scientists highlight the importance of ethics in tackling the next global pandemic

Estimates predict that there is currently more than a one in four chance of another global pandemic in the next decade, and scientists are seeking to find ethical solutions.

However, scientists are unable to estimate what kind of pandemic it will be. Whilst it could be a coronavirus (like COVID or SARS) or influenza, there is also the possibility of something which has not been seen before. This unknown future threat is referred to by The World Health Organisation as “Disease X”.

The threat of “Disease X” has seen scientists start preparations. This has involved the “100 day mission” which aims to develop a vaccine for use within 100 days of an outbreak of a new pandemic. 

Ongoing preparations have also started raining questions concerning medical ethics and priorities. 

In a newly published book from Oxford University press, Oxford’s Professor Dominic Wilkinson and Professor Julian Savulescu (National University of Singapore) tackle the question of an ethical approach to pandemics.

In it, Professor Wilkinson writes: “Pandemics raise the deepest ethical questions about the value of life, and how to weigh health against liberty. There is no simple formula.”

He adds that during the COVID-19 global pandemic and lockdowns, politicians said that “We need to follow science”. Professor Wilkinson worries that “science can’t tell us whether we should have a lockdown, or mandatory vaccination. For that we need thoughtful, careful ethical analysis”.

On the subject of priorities, the issues seen during COVID; i.e. not being able to treat everyone who needs a hospital bed, ventilator, oxygen or a vaccine are drawn to light. The book also stresses  the conflict of prioritising national versus international interests as well as the difficult barter between protecting public health during a pandemic and maintaining and growing economic activity.

These conflicts highlight the need to factor in ethics when attempting to ease the impacts and find solutions to the future “Disease X”.

Professors Wilkinson and Savulescu have successfully assembled a group of international experts in ethics, economics, philosophy and law to examine and evaluate the problems and lessons from COVID-19. Hopefully, they can distill the best solutions for future pandemics.

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