Evan Steinberg, September 18, 2020
Coronavirus is an issue that has been affecting the world for months. Almost since the start of the pandemic, various companies have been trying to develop a vaccine to stop the spread of the virus. One such company is AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca is a British Pharmaceutical Company that is considered to be one of the front runners for creating a working Coronavirus vaccine. Currently, this trial is in Phase III. The AstraZeneca is far along in the vaccine development process and is giving promising results. In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have promised AstraZeneca, as well as two other drug companies, billions of dollars “to provide a supply of their vaccines should they prove safe and effective”. Because of this, there is a large incentive for AstraZeneca to produce an effective vaccine as soon as possible.
On September 6, AstraZeneca suspended its coronavirus vaccine trial due to safety concerns. One of the patients enrolled in this trial had an abnormal negative reaction to the vaccine. They stopped this trial so that they could better understand what went wrong.
On September 12, AstraZeneca announced that they were resuming their trial in Britain only. This announcement came the same day that Pfizer – a competing company that is also fighting for the contract from the NIH – announced that they would be enrolling an additional 30,000 patients into their vaccine trial.
AstraZeneca is a pharmaceutical company. This means that, at its core, AstraZeneca is trying to create a product to help others. However, they also have shareholders. Because of this, two of the stakeholders in AstraZeneca are the people using the medications they create as well as their shareholders. In other words, they have a duty to create safe and effective drugs to satisfy their consumers, as well as make as much profit as quickly as possible to satisfy their shareholders. This creates an ethical dilemma. To create the safest, most effective vaccine possible takes time, normally years. However, AstraZeneca is being pressured to create the Coronavirus vaccine as quickly as possible; one reason for this is so that they can win the multi-billion dollar contract with the NIH, which would satisfy their shareholders. In this situation, two of AstraZeneca’s stakeholders are pitted against each other. AstraZeneca is trying to fast track the vaccine to make as much money as possible. While the idea is sound, they could be prioritizing speed over the safety of their patients. The trial was halted worldwide due to a mysterious illness, and now is being resumed only in one of the countries where the trial was taking place. In this instance, AstraZeneca is prioritizing speed over safety.
There is yet another layer of ethical dilemmas in this issue. AstraZeneca is not the only company creating a Coronavirus virus vaccine; Pfizer is also creating a vaccine and is fighting for the same NIH contract as AstraZeneca. Because of this, AstraZeneca is further motivated to create the vaccine as quickly as possible to satisfy its shareholders. This further pits two of AstraZeneca’s stakeholders against each other, because AstraZeneca is prioritizing speed over the safety of its patients/consumers.
However, there is yet a third ethical dilemma in this situation. AstraZeneca partially restarted its trial the same day that Pfizer announced that its trial was expanding. More specifically, AstraZeneca announced the partial restart of its trial after Pfizer announced its plan to expand its trial. AstraZeneca has not shared the data from the trial nor announced the illness that caused the trial to halt temporarily. In the biomedical community, both of these raise questions about the trial. Because of this, there are questions as to whether AstraZeneca resumed its trial in Britain due to resolving/understanding the new side effect or if it was due to Pfizer’s announcement. One of AstraZeneca’s stakeholders is the patients that will receive this vaccine. Because of this, AstraZeneca has a duty to them just as much of a duty to its shareholders. With the timing of AstraZeneca’s announcement to resume the trial coinciding with Pfizer’s announcement, it is unknown whether AstraZeneca has truly understood why its vaccine causes this illness or if they are trying to beat Pfizer to win the contract from the NIH.
It is very important to create a Coronavirus vaccine as quickly as possible. The pandemic is still in full swing and getting this vaccine out of production and into the market will make a large impact in stopping its spread. However, before it goes into circulation, it must be documented that the vaccine is effective and safe. To do this, we must trust that the companies creating the vaccine, such as AstraZeneca, are creating the vaccines in an ethical and reliable way. In many ways, AstraZeneca has not been doing this. They were right to stop their trials after the illness happened, especially because it was a side effect that was never seen before. However, it is not announcing what that side effect is, nor sharing its trial data. Furthermore, the way in which the company went about restarting the trial was under some doubt; there are still questions as to whether the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective. The need for the vaccine is very important. However, it is equally important to create the vaccine in a way that the effectiveness is well documented and know by sharing at least part of its data with the public, as well as making sure that patients involved in creating the vaccine were treated as safely and ethically as possible.
Creating a vaccine is very important. However, creating it in an ethical way is equally important. At the rate that these trials are progressing, there is likely to be a Coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, if not in early 2021.
Original source: Zimmer, Carl, Katie Thomas, and Benjamin Mueller. “AstraZeneca Partly Resumes Coronavirus Vaccine Trial After Halting It for Safety,” September 12, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/health/astrazeneca-coronavirus-vaccine-trial-resumes.html.