Lancet: COVID-19 vaccine research and the trouble with clinical equipoise

(Lancet) More than 1·8 million lives have been lost due to COVID-19. Two frontrunner vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech promise some relief, with data suggesting 95% efficacy, and have been granted emergency use authorisations in several countries. In an open letter responding to these developments, participants in COVID-19 vaccine trials argued that those who received placebos should be unmasked and given priority access to authorised vaccines. The letter cited the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, which highlights the importance of minimising the time research participants spend in a placebo group.

Fulfilling these requests could help to foster trust in medicine and research, reward those who take risks for the many, and prevent future harm from COVID-19 for these participants. However, granting these requests also comes with tradeoffs and highlights competing interests inherent in vaccine development. Importantly, these requests also reveal shortcomings in bioethical resources, particularly clinical equipoise conceptualisations. Read more: