“You First”: Who Will Be Front in Line to Get a COVID Vaccine?

A small subset of hospitals and institutions in high-risk areas are likely to go first, according to bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

(© Ljupco Smokovski/Adobe)

There is a huge amount riding on the discovery of a vaccine effective against the Covid-19 virus.

Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests despite months of trying to meet demand.

The world is waiting for a vaccine that can liberate everyone from the constraints on liberty required by existing efforts to fight the virus with public health measures such as masks, isolation, and quarantining. President Trump, for the most part, has rejected tough public health measures. Instead he has staked his political future and those of the governors and Congressional Republicans who have followed his lead on delivering a vaccine before Election Day as the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA. Many scientific experts have been sounding encouraging notes about having a vaccine by the end of this year or early next, as have many CEOs among the more than 160 companies chasing various strategies to identify a safe and effective vaccine.

But the reality is that no matter how fast a vaccine appears, those who might benefit will face a significant period of time before they could receive one. This is due to a variety of realities. Any vaccine faces various regulatory hurdles to insure safety and efficacy. This means completing large-scale studies in tens of thousands of subjects hoping for enough cases of blunted natural infection versus a large placebo control group to determine that a vaccine works. And that takes time--plus adding in delays in manufacturing and delivery, which will create logjams for most prospective recipients.

Shipping is not going to be easy with cold chain storage requirements from -20 to -70 degrees Celsius, from factory to a doctor's office, depending on the vaccine. In addition, many of the vaccines under development require two doses--that is 660 million shots to cover just those in the United States. Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests, despite months of trying to meet demand.

There are three scenarios under which a vaccine can appear but without being in any way available to all Americans.

The first is a vaccine under development in the USA or with some USA financing begins to show promise before a full clinical trial is completed. Current vaccine trials are supervised by Data Safety and Monitoring Boards and those committees could tell a CEO eager to be first to market that their vaccine is looking good at the study's half-way point.

The CEO and vaccine manufacturing company's board then let the White House know that a magic bullet which can ensure the President's reelection is in hand. The President, as he has done many times with other COVID treatments, most recently convalescent plasma, intervenes with the FDA and demands approval using an Emergency Use Authorization, or invoking the Federal Right to Try law he and Mike Pence are constantly touting. FDA Commissioner Steve Hahn folds and an extremely limited supply of vaccine, maybe only 100,000 doses, is available just before Election Day.

The second scenario is that another nation discovers a vaccine that looks safe and effective and the USA is able to buy some supply of it. But again, we are likely, initially, to get an extremely limited amount.

Lastly, the vaccine is approved in a standard manner. A full randomized trial is done, the endpoints are met, and no serious adverse events are identified. It is a USA-funded vaccine so most of it is coming here first. Still the vials and needles and plugs need to be quality-controlled and shipped and stored at the right temperatures. Information sheets and consent forms need to be readied, offered, and signed. Odds are you won't see any of this vaccine until late next year. So, who is going to get the first shots?

Some people under all of these scenarios are going to say, "Count me out." They don't trust vaccines or they don't trust the government to provide a safe one. Others may say, "The first one out of the box may be OK, but I am going to wait for the 'best' one before I take one." Even if those numbers are large, it is still certain that there will be more takers than can be vaccinated.

If you look at the discussion of vaccine rationing, almost everybody — including government officials, FDA officials, advisory panelists and ethicists — says the first group that should get vaccinated are at-risk healthcare workers. They say it, although they're not always clear about why.

One reason is that you need to give it to health care workers first because they will keep the healthcare system going. Another is that you need to give it to them first because they face more risk and they should get rewarded for having done and continuing to do that -- their bravery ought to be rewarded and their risk reduced.

A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will [go first] and that will be it for a significant period of time.

Both of these arguments for health care worker priority are not completely convincing. Food and power and vaccine manufacturing are arguably as important as health care, but workers in those areas don't get priority attention in most guidelines. And many Americans face risks from COVID comparable to health care workers, especially those who are not on the front lines in ERs and ICUs. Prisoners, military personnel who work on warships, the elderly, nursing home residents, and poor minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID. However, none of them are going first, nor is it clear how to weigh their claims in competing against one another for a scarce vaccine.

But, there's something else that's interesting in deciding who goes first. When people all agree, as they almost always do, that it's health care workers who must go first, a huge problem remains. What is the definition of who's a healthcare worker? You could easily get millions and millions of people designated as healthcare workers who would have a claim to go first.

We normally think that health care worker means doctors and nurses. But, if we go beyond those who work in ERs and ICUs, the number is big. And we must, because no ER or ICU can run without huge numbers of supporting individuals.

If you don't vaccinate lab technicians, people who clean the rooms, make food, transport patients, provide security, do the laundry, run the IT, students, volunteers and so on, you're not going to have a functioning hospital. If you don't include those working in nursing homes, home care and hospices along with those making and supplying vital equipment and bringing in patients via ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks, you don't have a functioning ICU, much less a health care system.

The total number involved could easily exceed tens of millions depending on how broadly the definition is set.

So, what is likely to happen is that health care workers will not go first. A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will and that will be it for a significant period of time. Health care institutions in hot spots, plus the supporting services they need will go first and then vaccine availability will slowly expand to other health care institutions and the essential workers needed to keep them functioning. Then consideration will also be given to how best to control the spread of the virus in selecting hot spots versus saving prisoners or the poor. And you can be sure, whatever the guidelines are, that the military and security folks will demand their share.

For many, many months if not a year or more, most people will not have to face a choice about vaccinating. The supply just won't be there for the general public. It is a small sample of high-risk health care workers including vaccine manufacturing employees and shippers, plus essential workers to keep hospitals and nursing homes going, who will be first in line. Odds are you and your family will still be wearing masks and social distancing well into next year.

Arthur Caplan
Dr. Arthur Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City. Prior to coming to NYU School of Medicine, Dr. Caplan was the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where he created the Center for Bioethics and the Department of Medical Ethics. Caplan has also taught at the University of Minnesota, where he founded the Center for Biomedical Ethics, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University. He is the author or editor of thirty-five books and over 725 papers in peer reviewed journals. His most recent books are The Ethics of Sport (Oxford University Press, 2016 with Brendan Parent), and Vaccination Ethics and Policy (MIT Press, 2017 with Jason Schwartz).
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