Vaccination, uncertainty, and the right to take risks

By Pei-hua Huang.

Earlier this year, some patients developed a very rare and severe form of blood clot after receiving Covid-19 vaccines produced by AstraZeneca. The report prompted several countries to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccines. The European Medicines Agency also stepped in and launched an investigation.

We still don’t have a complete explanation for why some minority of individuals developed these clots. But we now have more information regarding issues like what sort of mechanisms could be relevant and which population has a higher risk of developing blood clots. Experts also assured, again and again, that the evidence we have so far suggests that the overall health benefits of receiving an AstraZeneca vaccine significantly outweigh the risks.

The uncertainty we are facing here motivates me to approach this issue from a non-consequentialist way. This is not to say that we should not take the consequentialist argument made by the experts of the European Medicines Agency seriously. They made excellent points. What I want to explore is whether we can also make a rights-based critique, which need not rely on constantly changing epidemiological data.

In my paper, Covid-19 and the right to take risks, I argue that the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine infringed people’s right to take risks they deem worth taking for their health. It is morally problematic that people are only allowed to opt for exposing themselves to the risk of contracting Covid-19 by declining vaccination invitations, but are not allowed to expose themselves to the risk of developing blood clots by receiving AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Covid-19 is still mutating and we do not know whether the available vaccines will still be effective to new variants. The suspension is morally concerning not just because it infringes people’s self-determination but also because it deprives people of the opportunity to help their community achieve herd immunity as soon as possible.

There are, of course, several objections that can be made against my argument. For example, one might argue that the government has a general duty to protect its citizens from undue risks, or that harms caused by Covid-19 and harms brought by vaccination are different. However, with a closer look at these objections, we will see that none of them successfully undermine my argument.

 

Paper: COVID-19 vaccination and the right to take risks

Author: Pei-hua Huang

Affiliation: Medical Ethics, Philosophy and History of Medicine, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam

Competing interests: None declared

Social media account of post author: @Peihua_Huang

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