COVID-19 cases are ticking upward in many parts of the globe. And it's worrying many in the US, as well, especially as the country plans for Thanksgiving Day gatherings.
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But data shows that booster shots can make a big difference. And an announcement is expected soon to make COVID-19 boosters widely available for most Americans, a move that some US states have already taken.
Still, many people are struggling with the idea of getting a third vaccination before others, namely people who are at greater risk in low-income countries, many of whom haven't even had the opportunity to get a first shot.
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Nicole Hassoun, a philosophy professor at Binghamton University, has given a lot of thought to the matter. She's also the head of the Global Health Impact project, which advocates for essential health technologies around the world. She spoke with The World's host Marco Werman about the ethics of getting a booster shot.
Marco Werman: We have new data, Nicole, about how effective boosters can be in tamping down COVID-19 surges. How do you think we should approach booster shots given the global inequality around vaccination?
Nicole Hassoun: Well, I think it's really important to get shots in arms everywhere, that people really need those first shots, because those are really effective in reducing transmission and saving lives. And it's a tragedy that we're giving people their third doses before many people even have their first doses, where we see more mutation of the virus globally, and we're not as effectively combating the global pandemic as we could be.
Let's work through that tragedy. The idea that getting a booster shot is, sort of, jumping the line. Would you say that has merit?
I have personally gotten my booster shot, so I'm not a person who thinks it's fully the responsibility of individuals to make sure that that equity happens. I think it's the responsibility of our governments, primarily, and it leaves individuals in a terrible situation when they're faced with an ethical question like, "Well, should I not take this? Would it make any difference? And what's the best thing to do?" In this case, with boosters, my personal decision has to do with the fact that I am going to visit a nursing home, where my father is. So, in a perfectly competitive market, if I don't take it, there would be an extra dose to give to somebody else. But I don't think that's how it's actually going to work in this case. And that's largely because a lot of the vaccines given, and the vaccine that I took, Pfizer, has to have an incredibly robust cold chain, and it's a limited time span on getting those shots in arms. So, I would much rather have given that shot to someone who hasn't been vaccinated at all in the US, for instance, but it's not going to happen.
So, by not taking a booster, it's not like that goes to a person who may need it more, in say, Africa — again, the quandary. But is that a morally well-grounded way of thinking?
Yeah, I think it would be great if we could donate more vaccines, or just not take them up in the first place. But, I think there are a lot of factors at play in getting to this unjust situation, and we should look at governments and what the pharmaceutical industry is doing and how international law is working and not always at the individual level. So, if we have a chance for a good pandemic treaty and future support for an implementation of something like COVAX that would really work internationally, that's going to be discussed at the World Health Assembly at the end of the month, I think that's something that's really important. And we should require companies to share the knowledge, data and technology that allows global manufacturing of those technologies, and to be scaled up really widely.
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You spoke earlier about visiting your father in a group home. Can I ask you, Nicole, how, personally, you approach the question of if, or when, to get a booster?
I think it's a really difficult choice. I don't think that it would probably have gotten into an arm had I not taken it. And so, given that, I think it's really important for them to get in arms. I wouldn't advocate for individuals not taking it. I think that individuals need to demand of their governments that they advance equity and good public health policies. And then, I also think there are ways for us to try to help support the global vaccination effort that would be more effective than refusing a booster shot ourselves, especially if you're likely to come into contact with vulnerable people or could transmit the virus to unvaccinated people.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.