How should we conduct pandemic vaccination?

Vaccination plays an important role in pandemic planning and response. The possibility of developing an effective vaccine for a novel pandemic virus is not assured. However, as we have seen with SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development, with sufficient resources and global focus, successful outcomes can be achieved in a relatively short period. However even when vaccine is available it will initially be scarce. When one becomes available, how should it be distributed?

In this paper we explicate how ethical thinking that is carefully attuned to context is essential to decisions about how we should conduct vaccination in a pandemic where demand exceeds supply. We focus on two key issues. First, setting the aims for a pandemic vaccination programme. Second, thinking about the means of delivering a chosen aim. We outline how pandemic vaccine distribution strategies can be implemented with distinct aims, e.g. protecting groups at greater risk of harm, saving the most lives, or ensuring societal benefit. Each aim will result in a focus on a different priority population and each strategy will have a different benefit-harm profile. Once we have decided our aim, we still have choices to make about delivery. We may achieve at least some ends via direct or indirect strategies. Such policy decisions are not merely technical, but necessarily involve ethics. One important general issue is that such planning decisions about distribution will always be made under conditions of uncertainty about vaccine safety and effectiveness. However, planning how to distribute vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 is even harder because we understand relatively little about the virus, transmission, and its immunological impact in the short and long term.

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