Bioethics Blogs

Individually-randomized controlled trials of vaccines against the next outbreak

Guest Post: Nir Eyal, Marc Lipsitch

Paper: Vaccine testing for emerging infections: the case for individual randomisation 

The humbling experience of international response to Ebola taught the world a thing or two on preparing for Zika and for other emerging infections.

Some of those lessons pertain to vaccine development against emerging infections. One lesson was that vigorous vaccine development should start long in advance of outbreaks. CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, was recently launched with an initial investment of half a billion US dollars from the Gates Foundation, Britain’s Wellcome Trust and the governments of Japan, Norway and Germany. There is also growing recognition that best practices on vaccine testing should be developed prior to outbreaks, from a study methodology viewpoint.

By contrast, in Zika, ethical guidelines on response in general and on an aspect of vaccine testing were created only once the pandemic erupted. Shouldn’t ethical disputes, e.g. on trial design for vaccine candidates, be ironed out in advance of emerging infections?

One persistent ethical question in vaccine testing pertains to individually-randomized control in efficacy trials. At the height of the 2014-5 Ebola outbreak, individually-randomized controlled trials were much maligned. Our paper at the Journal of Medical Ethics sets out to defend that approach for vaccine efficacy testing in emerging infections, including highly fatal and untreatable ones in developing countries.

Nearly everyone agrees that scientifically, individually-randomized controlled trials are the gold standard of clinical research. But during the Ebola outbreak, ethicists, leaders, and humanitarian workers opposed them. For testing vaccine against a highly fatal infection without approved drugs or vaccines, they deemed these designs unethical.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.