India is in a crisis as the burden of COVID-19 has collapsed parts of the health care system. There are not enough beds, not enough oxygen, and not enough crematoria to handle the pandemic. India is also a major supplier of vaccines for itself and many other countries. That production capacity has also been affected by the local events, further worsening the response to the pandemic over the next few months.
This collapse is the specter that, in April 2020, placed a hospital ship next to Manhattan and rows of beds in its convention center. Fortunately, the lockdown in March 2020 sufficiently flattened the curve. The city avoided utilizing that disaster capacity, though many New Yorkers died out of sight in nursing homes. When the third and largest wave of cases in the United States peaked in January 2021, hospitals throughout California reached capacity but avoided bursting. In April 2021, localized outbreaks in Michigan, Arizona, and Ontario again tested the maximum capacity for providing modern medical treatments. Great Britain used a second lockdown in October 2020 and a third in January 2021 to control the pandemic, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson emphasizing that it was these social interventions, and not vaccines, which provided the mitigating effects. Other European Union nations adopted similar strategies. Prudent choices by government guided by science, combined with the cooperation of the public, have been and still are crucial to mollify the pandemic.
There is hope that soon vaccines will return daily life to a new normal. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened restrictions on social gathering. An increase in daily new cases of COVID-19 in April 2021 has turned into just a blip before continuing to recede. Perhaps that is the first sign of vaccination working at the level of public health. However, the May 2021 lockdown in highly vaccinated Seychelles is a warning that the danger remains. A single match can start a huge forest fire. The first 150 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide have, through natural rates of mutation, produced several variants that might partially evade current vaccines. The danger of newer variants persists with the next 150 million cases as the pandemic continues to rage in many nations which are just one airplane ride away. All human inhabitants of this blue-covered third rock from the sun are interconnected.
The benefits of scientific advancement have been extolled for centuries. This includes both individual discoveries as well as a mindset that favors rationalism over fatalism. On the whole, the benefits of scientific progress outweigh the negatives. Negative environmental impacts include pollution and climate change. Economic impacts include raising the mean economic standard of living but with greater inequity. Historically, governmental and social institutions have attempted to mitigate these negative consequences. Those efforts have attempted to provide guidance and a moral compass to direct the progress of scientific advancement, particularly in fields like gene therapy. Those efforts have called upon developed nations to share the bounties of progress with other nations.
Modern medicine has provided the fruit of these scientific advancements to a limited fraction of the world’s population during the 20th century. The improvements in life expectancy and infant mortality have come primarily from civil engineers getting running water into cities and sewage out. A smaller portion of the benefits are from public health measures that reduced tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, and measles. Agriculture became more reliable, productive, and nutritious. In the 21st century, medical care (control of hypertension, diabetes, and clotting) aimed at reducing heart disease and strokes have added another 2-3 years to the life expectancy in the United States, with much of that benefit erased by the epidemics of obesity and opioid abuse.
Modern medical technology has created treatments that cost $10,000 a month to add a few extra months of life to geriatric patients with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, in more mundane care, efforts like Choosing Wisely seek to save money wasted on low-value, useless, and even harmful tests and therapies. There is no single person or agency managing this chaotic process of inventing expensive new technologies while inadequately addressing the widespread shortages of mental health care, disparities in education, and other social determinants of health. The pandemic has highlighted these preexisting weaknesses in the social fabric.
The cries from India have been accompanied by voices of anger from India and other nations accusing the United States of hoarding vaccines and the raw materials needed to produce them. This has been called vaccine apartheid. The United States is not alone in its political decision to prioritize domestic interests over international ones; India’s recent government is similarly nationalistic. Scientists warn that no one is safe locally as long as the pandemic rages in other countries. The Biden administration, in a delayed response to the crisis in India, finally announced plans to share some unused vaccines (of a brand not yet Food and Drug Administration approved) as well as some vaccine raw materials whose export was forbidden by a regulation under the Defense Production Act. Reading below the headlines, the promised response won’t be implemented for weeks or months. We must do better.
The logistics of sharing the benefits of advanced science are complicated. The ethics are not. Who is my neighbor? If you didn’t learn the answer to that in Sunday school, there isn’t much more I can say.
Dr. Powell is a retired pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. He has no financial disclosures, Email him at email@example.com