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Ethics briefing
  1. Dominic Norcliffe-Brown1,
  2. Sophie Brannan2,
  3. Martin Davies2,
  4. Veronica English2,
  5. Caroline Ann Harrison3,
  6. Julian C Sheather2
  1. 1 British Medical Association, London, UK
  2. 2 Medical Ethics, British Medical Association, London, UK
  3. 3 Ethics, BMA, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Mr Dominic Norcliffe-Brown, British Medical Association, London, UK; dnorcliffe-brown{at}

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Learning from COVID-19 – the ethics of research in global public health emergencies

In parts of the world, discussion regarding COVID-19 has shifted towards endemicity, and questions of living with, rather than directly battling, the virus. As a result, ethical questions are being refocussed. The imperative is beginning to shift towards what we can learn from the pandemic, and how we can better prepare for future global outbreaks. Among the questions that need to be addressed is what Covid-29 has taught us about how research can be conducted ethically during major global public health emergencies.

It is widely accepted that research has an essential role to play in improving the effectiveness of health interventions in major public health crises.1 Even before COVID-19, a special series published in The Lancet highlighted the critical role of research in humanitarian crises, and lamented the paucity of good data on the effectiveness of health interventions in these particularly demanding contexts.2

The impact of expedited vaccine research on the mortality, morbidity and global disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult to exaggerate. But it is clear that one important driver of vaccine hesitancy was public concern about the speed with which research into the vaccines was undertaken and hence the reliability of the data concerning their safety.3

Although for understandable reasons, the focus of attention on ethical research during the COVID-19 pandemic has been on vaccines and anti-virals, research in public health emergencies involves a wide range of activities designed to generate evidence, including social science research – which can be particularly critical in understanding barriers to vaccine uptake for example – along with epidemiological studies and health systems research.

One widely acknowledged area of ethical tension concerning research in public health emergencies is between the need for rapid ethical review, and the strong moral requirement …

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  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.