By Rev. Fr Leonard Emeka Owuamanam, SC and Felix Ikem Odibe.
A brief survey of the history of pandemics and the consequent death statistics will help to us grasp the enormity of the current situation of Covid-19 and the question of vaccines. After famine, humanity’s second great enemy was plagues and infectious disease. The history of humanity illustrates various periods at which pandemics erupted and destroyed millions of lives.
In 330’s, “Black Death” in Central Asia, when the flea dwelling bacterium “yersinia pestis” infected humans beaten by fleas. From Central Asia, the epidemic quickly across over Asia, Europe, and North Africa taken less than 20 years to reach the shores of Atlantic Ocean. between 75 and 200 million people died (Yuval, 2015). In England, the population dropped from pre-pandemic of 3.7 million to a post-epidemic of 2.2 million. The authorities were completely helpless in the face of the calamity. Except for organizing mass prayers and burials for the victims, they had no idea of how to stop the spread of the pandemics, let alone its cure.
In 1520, smallpox struck Mexico and its environs and killed more than 250,000 people in two months (Yuval, 2015). Whereas in March 1520 when the smallpox arrived, Mexico was a home of 22 million people, by December 1520, only 14 million where still alive. Yuval (2015) sustained that smallpox pandemic killed more than 8 million people.
Two centuries later, on January 18, 1778, a British explorer James Cook brought the first flu, tuberculosis, and syphilis pathogens in Hawaii. This epidemic killed more than 300,000 people (Yuval, 2015). Epidemics and pandemics continue to threaten and kill tens of millions of people as well into the twentieth century. In 1918, the Spanish flu struck the human race, between 50 to 100 million people died (Yuval 2015).
In 2019, Covid-19, originating from China spread across the world in a matter of 3 to 4 months. Today human race is still battling against Covid-19 which has consumed more than 2.5 million lives according to WHO records. However, due to progress recorded in the areas of medicine. molecular biology, biophysics, information and biotechnology, some vaccines (BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, Moderna vaccine and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine) have been produced in a historic time framework. Vital questions that could be raised are: how did people react toward these vaccines? What is the political policy for inoculating the vaccines? What are ethical and moral questions emanating from the vaccines? How did the Catholic Church respond to ethical issues related to the vaccines?
Reactions related to vaccines: Opinions are divided regarding accepting or rejecting the covid-19 vaccines. This has been an age long reaction to vaccines. Dr Suzanne (2018) says that majority of health professionals agree that vaccine production is one of the great successes of medicine in the 20th century. However, despite this great success, when Edward Jenner (1749-1823) introduced a vaccine against smallpox in 1798, people did not embrace the vaccine easily despite the continuous menace of smallpox. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic generated an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in Boston. A prominent physician, Zabdiel Boylston began to counter smallpox with vaccination methods. Cotton Mathew, a clergyman, supported him publicly. But outraged mobs believed that the vaccinators are murderers. Boylston and Mathew became subjected to popular attacks. In a similar way, the vaccines for the prevention of covid-19 have received criticisms and rejections by some people. It is worthy to note that despite the rejection of the Jenner’s vaccines, it remained a panacea for combatting smallpox. In the same way, covid-19 vaccines will go a long way in curbing the spread of the pandemic.
How does the covid-19 vaccine work? Having observed that the antibodies which fight a specific infection in our body is developed after the body must have contacted the illness, the work of a vaccine is to induce the body into developing immunity for an infection without being infected in the first place. The vaccine equips the body a sufficient amount of T-lymphocyte and B- lymphocyte that helps in the battling of a specific infection. The common type of covid-19 currently in place are the mRNA vaccines. mRNA vaccines are coded with materials that cause covid-19. They manipulate the body with a scheme on how to produce harmless proteins commensurate to the virus. These proteins provoke the natural process of building T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocyte that make a memory of how to fight the virus that causes covid-19 in the event of contact. There are occasional mild symptoms such as fever after vaccination to indicate that the body is building immunity.
Ethical issues related to use of covid-19 vaccine and the position of the church: Two essential ethical problems arise from the vaccines and its compulsory inoculation: a) Violation of individual’s right to freedom and informed consent: According to the Ponticia Academia Pro Vita (5 June 2005), from the point of view of prevention of viral diseases such as measles, chicken pox, smallpox, hepatitis A and COVID-19, it is clear that the making of effective vaccines against these diseases as well as their use in the fight against these infections, up to the point of eradication, by means of an obligatory vaccination of all the population at risk, undoubtedly represents a “milestone” in the secular fight of man against infective and contagious diseases. This implies that the aim of such vaccination is to preserve public health and common good. By common good, the Church refers to all the conditions that promote well-being of human persons. In this light, the Church invites us to accept vaccination against covid-19.
b). Accepting vaccines originating from human stem cells obtained through abortion: According to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (21 December 2020), the primary ethical problem related to the use of Covid-19 vaccines focuses on the moral aspect of the use of the vaccines against Covid-19 that have been developed from cell lines derived from tissues obtained from two foetuses that were not spontaneously aborted. In the course of research and production of the vaccines, cell lines drawn from tissue obtained from two abortions that occurred in the last century were used.
If someone rejects every form of voluntary abortion of human foetuses, would they not contradict themselves by allowing the use of these vaccines of live attenuated viruses? Would it not be a matter of true (and illicit) cooperation in evil, even though this evil was carried out many years ago? In clarifying this ethical impasse, the Magisterium employed the principles assumed in classical moral doctrine with regard to the problem of licit cooperation in evil.
The first fundamental distinction to be made is that between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation is carried out when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention. On the other hand, when a moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing their evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation. Material cooperation can be further divided into categories of immediate (direct) and mediate (indirect), depending on whether the cooperation is in the execution of the sinful action per se, or whether the agent acts by fulfilling the conditions – either by providing instruments or products – which make it possible to commit the immoral act. Furthermore, forms of proximate cooperation and remote cooperation can be distinguished, in relation to the “distance” (be it in terms of temporal space or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act committed by someone else. Immediate material cooperation is always proximate, while mediate material cooperation can be either proximate or remote. Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person. Material cooperation can sometimes be illicit (depending on the conditions of the “double effect” or “indirect voluntary” action), but when immediate material cooperation concerns grave attacks on human life, it is always to be considered illicit, given the precious nature of the value in question.
In the specific case under examination, there are three categories of people who are involved in the cooperation in evil, evil which is obviously represented by the action of a voluntary abortion performed by others: a) those who prepare the vaccines using human cell lines coming from voluntary abortions; b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines; c) those who need to use them for health reasons.
As regards Covid19 against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, the Church holds that it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing citizens, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the population is exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of the population. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measle and is applicable to COVID-19.
Who should get the covid-19 vaccine? Any vaccine in its wake brings about a corresponding ethical complication: The problem of allocation. Who should get the vaccine first? Health workers are in a high risk of exposure. Priority should be given to older people. With the arrival of more vaccines, there should be consideration for people with underlying health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, pulmonary, liver or kidney diseases and chronic infections. They should be vaccinated and accompanied with counselling. People who have already recovered from covid-19 can be vaccinated but can defer their vaccination to up to six months after recovery.
Conclusion: The history of pandemic shows that it usually lasts for more than two years. Covid-19 is the only case in which vaccines are rapidly available to prevent the spread of the virus. Nigeria has not recorded a great number of dead cases in the spread of pandemics. Ebola was swiftly checkmated, and number of victims were greatly reduced. Now the world is battling against Covid19 since 2019 with over 2.5 million people already dead. Adequate awareness should be embarked to create awareness on the dangers of the covid19 pandemic. Dr. Gavin Yamay (2021) rightly says that Covid-19 waits for nobody; if the rich countries continue to accumulate the vaccines and poor countries are not vaccinated, the pandemic may last for more than seven years. Vaccination is necessary for all.
- Rev. Fr Leonard Emeka Owuamanam is Catholic priest of the Congregation of Servants of Charity (Guanellians). He holds a Certificate in Bioethics and Sexology from School of Specialization in Bioethics and Sexology, Messina Italy. He is currently doing his Licentiate in Bioethics at Pontifical University Regina Apostolorum, Rome and is the President of Nigerian Catholic Bioethics Association in Rome.
- Felix is a seminarian of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha undertaking his Licentiate studies in Bioethics at the Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, Rome (UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights). His Research areas of interest are Catholic Bioethics, Epigenetics, Neuroethics, and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.