Canada’s milquetoast position on COVID-19 human challenge trials may cost thousands of lives, by Alexandre Rogers
I believe it is a moral imperative to do what I can to prevent unnecessary suffering, even if that means taking on a risk myself. That’s why I am seeking to have myself deliberately infected with SARS-CoV-2 in a “human challenge trial.”
Conducting human challenge trials is the fastest way to down-select for the most promising vaccines to manufacture and distribute to low/middle income countries. Without them, it will take many months or even years to test many single-dose, intranasal vaccines that are easy to distribute but have yet to enter efficacy trials. Even a vaccine that just works for young people would have enormous social value by contributing to herd immunity.
Only by developing multiple more safe and effective vaccines can we ensure that the whole world gets vaccinated in 2021, including the global poor suffering the most during the pandemic. Developing countries have a history of being left behind in vaccination. For example, only 11% of children are receiving the last WHO-recommended vaccine doses, and over 1.5 million people die from vaccine-preventable diseases every year. Presently, estimates indicate that only 1 in 10 people in low income countries will receive a vaccine by the end of 2021.
Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, recently pled on the international stage that this is our chance to right inequities. “This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts, to reimagine economic systems that address global challenges like extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change.” Hearing those words brought hope that Canada would take the suffering of those around the world seriously.
Yet Canada’s response to my formal petition in support of COVID-19 human challenge studies, which was signed by over 500 Canadians, told a different story. They cite risks associated with the trial, of which I am well aware. These risks are the reason why human challenge trials hold so much social value. They remind me about a lack of rescue therapy. They remind me of the long-term effects that can linger. Finally, they remind us that “global scientific and clinical knowledge of this new virus, including its impact on people, is still evolving.”
I understand these risks, and so do thousands of other Canadians who have volunteered to take part in a COVID-19 challenge study for the greater good.
The Canada-centric answer demonstrates an unjustifiable bias towards Canadian wellbeing at the cost of others’ wellbeing. Thus what I hear is that because I am a Canadian citizen, I cannot be subjected to risk unless it benefits Canadians. This effectively deprives me of the agency to act on the moral imperative PM Trudeau claimed we stand for on the world stage, because of a nationalist view of human value.
If we examine the social value on a global scale instead of nationally, I think the risks of death — less than 1 in 10,000 for someone my age — are completely justifiable. Long-COVID-19 requires follow-up medical attention and assessments. I live in Canada, and have access to such services, but when someone does not have access to enough food, she or he certainly will not have access to medical care. Saving one person at higher risk than myself from infection holds enough social value already for me to act. Consider that this involved thousands of people, people who are part of a family, who love and cherish life, and who have the same rights as any other human.
If it had direct social value for Canadian citizens, would the response be the same? The answer about Canadians being fine leads me to believe that it would have been. It is not morally acceptable to deny the social benefit to lower-income countries for a reason that it does not benefit us directly.
Global vaccine equity is why I submitted my petition and is why I now urge the federal government both to honor its stance on equity and acknowledge the urgent need both for additional vaccines and more deliverable ones.
Every day that we delay vaccine development, we increase the existing disparities between the rich and the poor. Every day that we delay vaccines reaching the most vulnerable, present rates outline over 10,000 daily deaths. Please, let the thousands of Canadian volunteers do what they can do to help, and green-light human challenge trials immediately
Alexandre Rogers is a 1Day Sooner volunteer based in Canada.