Ethical research in global health emergencies

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that advises policy makers on ethical issues in bioscience and medicine, is launching a new exploration of how research may be conducted ethically in the context of global health emergencies. Such health emergencies may be ‘global’ in the sense that their effects extend beyond national boundaries, or that they require a global response, or both. 

The project will take into account the diverse forms that emergencies can take for example an infectious disease outbreak, conflict, or natural disaster. It will also explore the diversity of health-related research involved and associated challenges including data-sharing and the implications of developments in genomics. 

Professor Michael Parker, Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, and the Ethox Centre, who will chair the project’s working group said “Recent global health emergencies, notably the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, have highlighted how uncertainties about what is ethically acceptable during emergencies can impede progress of potentially valuable research, or alternatively contribute to the risks of unethical practice passing undetected. Such a situation can mean that frontline workers are left to make their own decisions, unsupported, about what is ethically acceptable, often in very difficult circumstances.” 

The project will explore key questions including: whether there is anything morally distinct about an emergency that could justify different ethical requirements for research; uncertainty over the roles and responsibilities of major stakeholders in resolving many of these ethical challenges on the ground; and also the extent to which the research, care, and public health elements of emergency responses (each of which have distinct ethical and regulatory approaches) may intersect and overlap, demanding a more holistic ethical framework.