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The Ethics of Human Challenge Trials During COVID-19


Author: Gabriel Velez



  1. Pamela Bjorkman, David Baltimore Professor of Biology and Bioengineering; Executive Officer for Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology
  2. Alison Dundes Renteln, Professor of Political Science, Anthropology, Public Policy and Law, University of Southern California
  3. Kimberly Mealy, Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion, American Political Science Association
  4. Jonathan Moreno, David & Lyn Silfen University Professor, Professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy and of History & Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
  5. Seema Shah, Founders’ Board Professor of Medical Ethics, Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Advanced General Pediatrics and Primary Care) and School of Law, Northwestern University


Session Summary

This panel brought together scientists in political science, law, and biology to discuss the ethics and human rights related to vaccine trials in the context of COVID-19.  There was undoubtedly an urgent need for quick vaccine development to save the lives of millions across the world, yet still these processes faced critical questions related to the human rights of individuals involved in the trials and the ethical and political concerns in adapting established procedures. This group of speakers offered an interdisciplinary approach both for working through these questions related to COVID-19 and for addressing public health decision-making into the future.



  1. In times of crisis and emerging possibly devastating diseases, can controlled studies with intentional exposure/infection be ethical?
  2. Considering challenge trials raises the question of means versus ends, which may be inconsistent with international human rights law.
  3. Even amid “ethical ways” of developing vaccines, vulnerable groups are often excluded from research and development, and thus the full benefits of the science.
  4. International geopolitical dynamics must be taken into account as rivalries, investment in international organizations like WHO, and sharing of intellectual and material resources play into the development of vaccines.



  1. Amid times of international crisis—in this case a public health emergency—new questions related to ethics, geopolitical dynamics, and individual versus societal benefit complicate vaccine development, but must be engaged with to affirm the human rights of all, including trial participants and vulnerable groups.


Key Words

  1. COVID-19
  2. Vaccines
  3. Ethics
  4. Public policy
  5. Biomedical advances