Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in Distributing COVID-19 Vaccines

IntroductionEdit

The upcoming vaccines would become a key solution to the COVID-19 outbreak, a global pandemic recognized by The World Health Organization (WHO).[1]

Nonetheless, the confrontation between the expected initial limited supply[2] and the "staggering global need"[3] leads to a controversial topic: How to distribute scarce vaccines effectively and equitably for the sake of the whole society?

This interdisciplinary problem has yielded arguments from different disciplines: Epidemiology, Economics, and Sociology. Due to contrasting disciplinary perspectives and priorities, different types of "truth" provided multiple insights, yet made the decision-making process tough by creating tensions between disciplines.

Truth in EpidemiologyEdit

 
Covid Vaccine Clinical Trial, Padjajaran University

Epidemiology measures disease outcomes concerning populations at risk (groups of healthy or sick people, counted as cases if contracting the disease being studied).[4] In "truth", epidemiology uses positivism, being based on a posteriori knowledge, empirical evidence, inductive reasoning, and observational research.

Positivism in Vaccine DevelopmentEdit

The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine developed faster than other previous vaccines[5][6] through empiricism and observational research methods, associated with positivism.

The research methods included using preclinical and toxicology data already available (e.g. the 80% similarity between the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV)[7][8] and new research tools (e.g. “structure-based antigen design, computational biology, protein engineering, and gene synthesis”).[9]

Despite the importance of a posteriori knowledge when defining epidemiology’s truth, data from the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development are incomplete. Because the reactogenicity of the vaccine caused severe allergic reactions in some individuals[10], groups of people were neglected from the vaccine research: drug or alcohol addicts, the uncontrollably ill, pregnant women[11], children under 16, and individuals allergic to drugs (eg. Paracetamol).[12] That being said, most vaccine tests were efficient in adults.[13] Therefore, with minimal risk to human subjects, implementing an accelerated COVID-19 vaccine program is needed.[14]

Inductive Reasoning in Vaccine DistributionEdit

Epidemiological truth relies on inductive reasoning: generalizing research outcomes to effectively propose a vaccine distribution method. Based on previous vaccine distribution approaches, the standard age-based mathematical program proved to be the most optimal (fast in delivery, better uptake for the people at risk: health-care workers, the sick, and the elderly).[15][16]

However, since epidemiology prioritizes risk factors and vaccine doses are scarce, the first to receive the vaccine would be Health Care Personnel (HCP) and then essential workers, patients with high-risk underlying medical conditions, and elderly individuals.[17]

Vaccine effects remain uncertain.[18] Hence, countries like Switzerland delayed the accelerated COVID-19 vaccine program[19], which urges epidemiologists to conduct further research and alter their initial risk-based plan if needed.

Truth in EconomicsEdit

Economics concerns the production and distribution of goods and services.[20] When approaching truth, it uses positivism, interpretivism, and social constructionism to determine how distribution would affect different social groups and the economy.

Positive Externality of VaccinationEdit

From a positivist perspective, according to economist Tyler Cowen, one “uncomfortable truth” is that “Most of the best distribution methods are blatantly unfair.”[21] In this context, he claims fairness is overvalued.[22] He proposed a geographically concentrated approach to vaccine distribution that would save more lives and restore the economy through limiting vaccine doses within certain regions.[23]

In this approach, the underlying truth is making the most use of limited vaccine doses by intensifying the positive externalities of vaccination such as "herd immunity and reduced transmission of the disease".[24][25] This truth mirrors broadly the augmenting hidden health protection gained by third parties, that are not directly related to the production or consumption of vaccines. Thus, a dynamic social environment is constructed by economists.[26]

However, the validity of the truth is undermined. The real-life situation is oversimplified with external and unpredictable variables. Neither subtle extra benefits nor potential welfare gain could be precisely quantified before policy implementation.

Truth of FiguresEdit

It was argued that based on the collection and analysis of macroeconomic data (e.g. high unemployment rate, unstable inflation rate), 75% to 85% of the population must be vaccinated to recover the economy.[27]

However, data “on the size of the effect of COVID-19 vaccines on transmission” is still unavailable.[28] The predictive "truth" is mainly based on the changing state of the pandemic and the economic outlook of the US.[29]

Moreover, there is an imperfect measure of a nation’s macroeconomic reality. For instance, unemployment figures do not take underemployment and hidden unemployment into account.[30] This implies the overestimation of actual macroeconomic conditions when observing and interpreting them from the perspective of the unemployment rate. Other unpredictable factors (e.g. domestic consumer confidence and business confidence) also influence the final observable impacts of vaccines on stimulating the economy. Therefore it is hard to verify the reliability of the ubiquity and precision of figures given as truth in this case.

Truth in SociologyEdit

Sociology studies the impact of society on observable phenomena.[31] When approaching truth, sociologists use both social constructionism and interpretivism, based on qualitative and quantitative data, and empirical and experimental evidence.

Health InequalitiesEdit

From the sociologists' perspective, vaccines should not be distributed in a "colorblind" method in the U.S.[32], but instead by targeting racial minorities who have suffered more from the COVID-19 pandemic. They emphasized that health care services were already race-biased.[33] Surveys carried out in hospitals show that there are 4 times more Hispanic or Latino persons hospitalized for COVID-19 in the US than white persons.[34]

Widening socioeconomic inequalities also affect ethnic minorities (Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islanders, Asian, Hispanic or Latino persons, etc).[35] A report states that "the ethical justification for prioritizing economically worse-off racial minorities rests on epidemiological, economic, and social justice grounds".[36] Therefore, the World Health Organization (WHO) encourages governments to distribute vaccines by targeting the reduction of social inequalities.[37]

These "unfair" truths have been underlined by sociologists. However, sociologists' way of finding constructed meanings in society could be influenced by their subjective truth, which lines up with their values.[38]

Localization and DistributionEdit

With the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) (an index that geographically studies social vulnerability), and the quantitative evidence of COVID-19 cases[39], sociologists can localize the regions where COVID-19’s aftermaths would be the most consequent with "people of color and other vulnerable populations" and where it would be "right" to distribute the vaccine as a priority.

They also emphasize that the ethnic minorities and the poor are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and are not reflected in the initial vaccine prioritisation order; despite this, those ethical questions need to be explored.[40] This shows that the research focus on the socially disadvantaged groups requires further exploration in the truth construction about certain neglected groups in sociology.

Conflicting Truth in Public HealthEdit

Contrasting possible outcomes in vaccine distribution programs emerged in the field of Public Health.

While Epidemiology and Economics, use positivism to approach the truth, Epidemiology targets the high-risk population in vaccine distribution, while Economics seeks to maximize social utility. Both Economics and Sociology use social constructivism and interpretive truth within research in their field, however, Sociology stresses out the pre-existent social and health inequalities[41] in vaccine distribution.

Considering the significance and complexity of the "truths" formed by different disciplines, an interdisciplinary approach is essential in government policy-making of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, to benefit society the most.

ReferencesEdit

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