The highly anticipated rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine poses ethical considerations: When will trial volunteers who got a placebo be vaccinated? And how will this affect the data in those trials?
It's an issue that vaccine manufacturers and study investigators are wrestling with as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to grant emergency use authorization this weekend to a vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech. Another vaccine, produced by Moderna, is nearing approval in the United States.
The most vulnerable—health care workers and nursing home residents—are deemed eligible to receive the initial limited supply in accordance with priority recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
With health care workers constituting an estimated 20 percent of trial participants, this question also comes to the fore: "Is it now ethically imperative that we offer them the vaccine, those who have had placebo?" says William Schaffner, an infectious diseases physician at Vanderbilt University and an adviser to the CDC's immunization practices committee.
When a "gold-standard" measure becomes available, participants in the placebo group "would ordinarily be notified" of the strong public health recommendation to opt for immunization, says Johan Bester, interim assistant dean for biomedical science education and director of bioethics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine.
"If a treatment or prevention exists that we know works, it is unethical to withhold it from people who would benefit from it just to answer a research question." This moral principle poses a quandary for ethicists and physicians alike, as they ponder possible paths to proceed with vaccination amid ongoing trials. Rigorous trials are double-blinded—neither the participants nor the investigators know who received the actual vaccine and who got a dummy injection.
"The intent of these trials is to follow these folks for up to two years," says Marci Drees, infection prevention officer and hospital epidemiologist for ChristianaCare in Wilmington, Delaware. At a minimum, she adds, researchers would prefer to monitor participants for six months.
"You can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison."
But in the midst of a pandemic, that may not be feasible. Prolonged exposure to the highly contagious and lethal virus could have dire consequences.
To avoid compromising the integrity of the blinded data, "there are some potentially creative solutions," Drees says. For instance, trial participants could receive the opposite of what they initially got, whether it was the vaccine or the placebo.
One factor in this decision-making process depends on when a particular trial is slated to conclude. If that time is approaching, the risk of waiting would be lower than if the trial is only halfway in progress, says Eric Lofgren, an epidemiologist at Washington State University who has studied the impact of COVID-19 in jails and at in-person sporting events.
Sometimes a study concludes earlier than the projected completion date. "All clinical trials have a data and safety monitoring board that reviews the interim results," Lofgren says. The board may halt a trial after finding evidence of harm, or when a treatment or vaccine has proven to be "sufficiently good," rendering it unethical to deprive the placebo group of its benefits.
The initial months of a trial are most crucial for assessing a vaccine's safety. Differences between the trial groups would be illuminating if fewer individuals who got the active vaccine contracted the virus and developed symptoms when compared to the placebo recipients. After that point, in vaccine-administered participants, "you can still follow safety over a long-term period of time without actually continuing to have a placebo group for comparison," says Dial Hewlett Jr., medical director for disease control at the Westchester County Department of Health in New York.
Even outside of a trial, safety is paramount and any severe side effects that occur will be closely monitored and investigated through national reporting networks. For example, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several rare but serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine given on Tuesday. The FDA has asked Pfizer to track allergic reactions in its safety monitoring plan, and some experts are proposing that Pfizer conduct a separate study of the vaccine on people with a history of severe allergies.
As the FDA eventually grants authorization to multiple vaccines, more participants are likely to leave trials and opt to be vaccinated. It is important that enough participants choose to stay in ongoing trials, says Nicole Hassoun, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where she directs the Global Health Impact program to extend medical access to the poor.
She's hopeful that younger participants and individuals without underlying medical conditions will make that determination. But the departure of too many participants at high risk for the virus would make it more difficult to evaluate the vaccine's safety and efficacy in those populations, Hassoun says, while acknowledging, "We can't have the best of both worlds."
Once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines."
One solution would entail allowing health care workers to exit a trial after a vaccine is approved, even though this would result in "a conundrum when the next group of people are brought forward to get the vaccine—whether they're people age 65 and older or they're essential workers, or whoever they are," says Vanderbilt physician Schaffner, who is a former board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "All of a sudden, you'll have an erosion of the volunteers who are in the trial."
For now, one way or another, experts agree that current and subsequent trials should proceed. There is a compelling reason to identify additional vaccines with potentially greater effectiveness but with fewer side effects or less complex delivery methods that don't require storage at extremely low temperatures.
"Continuing with existing vaccine trials and starting others remains important," says Nir Eyal, professor and director of Rutgers University's Center for Population-Level Bioethics in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "We still need to tell how much proven vaccines block infections and how long their duration lasts. And populations around the world need vaccines that are easier to store and deliver, or simply cheaper."
But once a safe and effective vaccine is approved in the United States, "it would not be ethically appropriate to do placebo trials to test new vaccines," says bioethicist Bester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine. "One possibility if a new vaccine emerges, is to test it against existing vaccines."
In a letter sent to trial volunteers in November, Pfizer and BioNTech committed to establishing "a process that would allow interested participants in the placebo group who meet the eligibility criteria for early access in their country to 'cross-over' to the vaccine group." The trial plans to continue monitoring all subjects regardless of whether people in the placebo group cross over, Pfizer said in a presentation to the FDA today. After Pfizer has collected six months of safety data, in April 2021, it plans to ask the FDA for full approval of the vaccine.
In the meantime, the company pledged to update volunteers as they obtain more input from regulatory authorities. "Thank you again for making a difference by being a part of this study," they wrote. "It is only through the efforts of volunteers like you that reaching this important milestone and developing a potential vaccine against COVID-19 is possible."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the FDA would be granting emergency "approval" to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, rather than "emergency use authorization." We regret the error.
You are driving along the highway and see an electronic sign that reads: “3,238 traffic deaths this year.” Do you think this reminder of roadside mortality would change how you drive? According to a recent, peer-reviewed study in Science, seeing that sign would make you more likely to crash. That’s ironic, given that the sign’s creators assumed it would make you safer.
The study, led by a pair of economists at the University of Toronto and University of Minnesota, examined seven years of traffic accident data from 880 electric highway sign locations in Texas, which experienced 4,480 fatalities in 2021. For one week of each month, the Texas Department of Transportation posts the latest fatality messages on signs along select traffic corridors as part of a safety campaign. Their logic is simple: Tell people to drive with care by reminding them of the dangers on the road.
But when the researchers looked at the data, they found that the number of crashes increased by 1.52 percent within three miles of these signs when compared with the same locations during the same month in previous years when signs did not show fatality information. That impact is similar to raising the speed limit by four miles or decreasing the number of highway troopers by 10 percent.
The scientists calculated that these messages contributed to 2,600 additional crashes and 16 deaths annually. They also found a social cost, meaning the financial expense borne by society as a whole due to these crashes, of $377 million per year, in Texas alone.
The cause, they argue, is distracted driving. Much like incoming texts or phone calls, these “in-your-face” messages grab your attention and undermine your focus on the road. The signs are particularly distracting and dangerous because, in communicating that many people died doing exactly what you are doing, they cause anxiety. Supporting this hypothesis, the scientists discovered that crashes increase when the signs report higher numbers of deaths. Thus, later in the year, as that total mortality figure goes up, so do the percentage of crashes.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
That change over time is not simply a function of changing weather, the study’s authors observed. They also found that the increase in car crashes is greatest in more complex road segments, which require greater focus to navigate.
The overall findings represent what behavioral scientists like myself call a “boomerang effect,” meaning an intervention that produces consequences opposite to those intended. Unfortunately, these effects are all too common. Between 1998 and 2004, Congress funded the $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which famously boomeranged. Using professional advertising and public relations firms, the campaign bombarded kids aged 9 to 18 with anti-drug messaging, focused on marijuana, on TV, radio, magazines, and websites. A 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that children and teens saw these ads two to three times per week. However, more exposure to this advertising increased the likelihood that youth used marijuana. Why? Surveys and interviews suggested that young people who saw the ads got the impression that many of their peers used marijuana. As a result, they became more likely to use the drug themselves.
Boomerang effects happen when those with authority, in government or business, fail to pay attention to the science. These leaders rely on armchair psychology and gut intuitions on what should work, rather than measuring what does work.
To be clear, message campaigns—whether on electronic signs or through advertisements—can have a substantial effect on behavior. Extensive research reveals that people can be influenced by “nudges,” which shape the environment to influence their behavior in a predictable manner. For example, a successful campaign to reduce car accidents involved sending smartphone notifications that helped drivers evaluate their performance after each trip. These messages informed drivers of their personal average and best performance, as measured by accelerometers and gyroscopes. The campaign, which ran over 21 months, significantly reduced accident frequency.
Nudges work best when rigorously tested with small-scale experiments that evaluate their impact. Because behavioral scientists are infrequently consulted in creating these policies, some studies suggest that only 62 percent have a statistically significant effect. Other research reveals that up to 15 percent of desired interventions may backfire.
In the case of roadside mortality signage, the data are damning. The new research based on the Texas signs aligns with several past studies. For instance, research has shown that increasing people’s anxiety causes them to drive worse. Another, a Virginia Tech study in a laboratory setting, found that showing drivers fatality messages increased what psychologists call “cognitive load,” or the amount of information your brain is processing, with emotionally-salient information being especially burdensome and preoccupying, thus causing more distraction.
Nonetheless, Texas, along with at least 28 other states, has pursued mortality messaging campaigns since 2012, without testing them effectively. Behavioral science is critical here: when road signs are tested by people without expertise in how minds work, the results are often counterproductive. For example, the Virginia Tech research looked at road signs that used humor, popular culture, sports, and other nontraditional themes with the goal of provoking an emotional response. When they measured how participants responded to these signs, they noticed greater cognitive activation and attention in the brain. Thus, the researchers decided, the signs worked. But a behavioral scientist would note that increased attention likely contributes to the signs’ failure. As the just-published study in Science makes clear, distracting, emotionally-loaded signs are dangerous to drivers.
But there is good news. First, in most cases, it’s very doable to run an effective small-scale study testing an intervention. States could set up a safety campaign with a few electric signs in a diversity of settings and evaluate the impact over three months on driver crashes after seeing the signs. Policymakers could ask researchers to track the data as they run ads for a few months in a variety of nationally representative markets for a few months and assess their effectiveness. They could also ask behavioral scientists whether their proposals are well designed, whether similar policies have been tried previously in other places, and how these policies have worked in practice.
Everyday citizens can write to and call their elected officials to ask them to make this kind of research a priority before embracing an untested safety campaign. More broadly, you can encourage them to avoid relying on armchair psychology and to test their intuitions before deploying initiatives that might place the public under threat.
I walked through the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the laid-back capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic or Lao PDR. Piled on rough display tables were varieties of six-legged wildlife–grasshoppers, small white crickets, house crickets, mole crickets, wasps, wasp eggs and larvae, dragonflies, and dung beetles. Some were roasted or fried, but in a few cases, still alive and scrabbling at the bottom of deep plastic bowls. I crunched on some fried crickets and larvae.
One stall offered Giant Asian hornets, both babies and adults. I suppressed my inner squirm and, in the interests of world food security and equity, accepted an offer of the soft, velvety larva; they were smooth on the tongue and of a pleasantly cool, buttery-custard consistency. Because the seller had already given me a free sample, I felt obliged to buy a chunk of the nest with larvae and some dead adults, which the seller mixed with kaffir lime leaves.
The year was 2016 and I was in Lao PDR because Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada had initiated a project on small-scale cricket farming. The intent was to organize and encourage rural women to grow crickets as a source of supplementary protein and sell them at the market for cash. As a veterinary epidemiologist, I had been trained to exterminate disease spreading insects—Lyme disease-carrying ticks, kissing bugs that carry American Sleeping Sickness and mosquitoes carrying malaria, West Nile and Zika. Now, as part of a global wave promoting insects as a sustainable food source, I was being asked to view arthropods as micro-livestock, and devise management methods to keep them alive and healthy. It was a bit of a mind-bender.
The 21st century wave of entomophagy, or insect eating, first surged in the early 2010s, promoted by a research centre in Wageningen, a university in the Netherlands, conferences organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and enthusiastic endorsements by culinary adventurers and celebrities from Europeanized cultures. Headlines announced that two billion people around the world already ate insects, and that if everyone adopted entomophagy we could reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate climate change, and reign in profligate land and water use associated with industrial livestock production.
Furthermore, eating insects was better for human health than eating beef. If we were going to feed the estimated nine billion people with whom we will share the earth in 2050, we would need to make some radical changes in our agriculture and food systems. As one author proclaimed, entomophagy presented us with a last great chance to save the planet.
In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads.
The more recent data suggests that the number of people who eat insects in various forms, though sizeable, may be closer to several hundreds of millions. I knew that from several decades of international veterinary work. Sometimes, for me, insect eating has been simply a way of acknowledging cultural diversity. In 2010, in Kunming, a friend had served me deep-fried bamboo worms. I ate them to be polite. They tasted like French fries, but with heads. My friend said he preferred them chewier. I never thought about them much after that. I certainly had not thought about them as ingredients for human health.
Is consuming insects good for human health? Researchers over the past decade have begun to tease that apart. Some think it might not be useful to use the all-encompassing term insect at all; we don’t lump cows, pigs, chickens into one culinary category. Which insects are we talking about? What are they fed? Were they farmed or foraged? Which stages of the insects are we eating? Do we eat them directly or roasted and ground up?
The overall research indicates that, in general, the usual farmed insects (crickets, locusts, mealworms, soldier fly larvae) have high levels of protein and other important nutrients. If insects are foraged by small groups in Laos, they provide excellent food supplements. Large scale foraging in response to global markets can be incredibly destructive, but soldier fly larvae fed on food waste and used as a substitute for ground up anchovies for farmed fish (as Enterra Feed in Canada does) improves ecological sustainability.
Entomophagy alone might not save the planet, but it does give us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we produce and harvest protein.
The author enjoys insects from the Dong Makkhai forest-products market, just outside of Vientiane, the capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Between 1961 and 2018, world chicken production increased from 4 billion to 20 billion, pork from 200 million to over 100 billion pigs, human populations doubled from 3.5 billion to more than 7 billion, and life expectancy (on average) from 52 to 72 years. These dramatic increases in food production are the result of narrowly focused scientific studies, identifying specific nutrients, antibiotics, vaccines and genetics. What has been missing is any sort of peripheral vision: what are the unintended consequences of our narrowly defined success?
If we look more broadly, we can see that this narrowly defined success led to industrial farming, which caused wealth, health and labor inequities; polluted the environment; and created grounds for disease outbreaks. Recent generations of Europeanized people inherited the ideas of eating cows, pigs and chickens, along with their products, so we were focused only on growing them as efficiently as possible. With insects, we have an exciting chance to start from scratch. Because, for Europeanized people, insect eating is so strange, we are given the chance to reimagine our whole food system in consultation with local experts in Asia and Africa (many of them villagers), and to bring together the best of both locally adapted food production and global distribution.
For this to happen, we will need to change the dietary habits of the big meat eaters. How can we get accustomed to eating bugs? There’s no one answer, but there are a few ways. In many cases, insects are ground up and added as protein supplements to foods like crackers or bars. In certain restaurants, the chefs want you to get used to seeing the bugs as you eat them. At Le Feston Nu in Paris, the Arlo Guthrie look-alike bartender poured me a beer and brought out five small plates, each featuring a different insect in a nest of figs, sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, and chopped dried tropical fruits: buffalo worms, crickets, large grasshoppers (all just crunchy and no strong flavour, maybe a little nutty), small black ants (sour bite), and fat grubs with a beak, which I later identified as palm weevil larvae, tasting a bit like dried figs.
Some entomophagy advertising has used esthetically pleasing presentations in classy restaurants. In London, at the Archipelago restaurant, I dined on Summer Nights (pan fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit), Love-Bug Salad (baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic), Bushman’s Cavi-Err (caramel mealworms, bilinis, coconut cream and vodka jelly), and Medieaval Hive (brown butter ice cream, honey and butter caramel sauce and a baby bee drone).
The Archipelago restaurant in London serves up a Love-Bug Salad: baby greens with an accompanying dish of zingy, crunchy mealworms fried in olive oil, chilis, lemon grass, and garlic.
Some chefs, like Tokyo-based Shoichi Uchiyama, try to entice people with sidewalk cooking lessons. Uchiyama's menu included hornet larvae, silkworm pupae, and silkworms. The silkworm pupae were white and pink and yellow. We snipped off the ends and the larvae dropped out. My friend Zen Kawabata roasted them in a small pan over a camp stove in the street to get the "chaff" off. We made tea from the feces of worms that had fed on cherry blossoms—the tea smelled of the blossoms. One of Uchiyama-san’s assistants made noodles from buckwheat dough that included powdered whole bees.
At a book reading in a Tokyo bookstore, someone handed me a copy of the Japanese celebrity scandal magazine Friday, opened to an article celebrating the “charms of insect eating.” In a photo, scantily-clad girls were drinking vodka and nibbling giant water bugs dubbed as toe-biters, along with pickled and fried locusts and butterfly larvae. If celebrities embraced bug-eating, others might follow. When asked to prepare an article on entomophagy for the high fashion Sorbet Magazine, I started by describing a clip of Nicole Kidman delicately snacking on insects.
Taking a page from the success story of MacDonald’s, we might consider targeting children and school lunches. Kids don’t lug around the same dietary baggage as the grownups, and they can carry forward new eating habits for the long term. When I offered roasted crickets to my grandchildren, they scarfed them down. I asked my five-year-old granddaughter what she thought: she preferred the mealworms to the crickets – they didn’t have legs that caught in her teeth.
Entomo Farms in Ontario, the province where I live, was described in 2015 by Canadian Business magazine as North America’s largest supplier of edible insects for human consumption. When visiting, I popped some of their roasted crickets into my mouth. They were crunchy, a little nutty. Nothing to get squeamish over. Perhaps the human consumption is indeed growing—my wife, at least, has joined me in my entomophagy adventures. When we celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Public Bar and Restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, the “Kang Kong Worms” and “Salmon, Manuka Honey, and Black Ants” seemed almost normal. Of course, the champagne helped.