The moral challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the importance of ethics in the field of health care, Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Zoom event.
The Feb. 19 event, hosted by the Georgetown University Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, featured an hourlong conversation with Fauci and Dr. Myles Sheehan, S.J., director of the center. Fauci is currently serving as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and has been at the forefront of the U.S. government’s pandemic response since March 2020. Fauci and Sheehan discussed a variety of topics, including the public roles of physicians and how the COVID-19 pandemic has reasserted the importance of examining ethics in health care.
Ethicists and health care providers must take the opportunity to reflect on the grave consequences of the pandemic, according to Fauci.
“The lessons that I learned from this outbreak is that there are a lot of ethical considerations that come in,” Fauci said during the Zoom event. “The availability and accessibility of interventions, be they vaccines or therapies, the relationship between your responsibility to your country and the moral obligation that you might have to take care of those who are less fortunate.”
Bioethics is particularly significant to Fauci because his wife, Dr. Christine Grady, serves as the head of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, according to Fauci.
“I have become extremely appreciative of the importance and the depth and the breadth of the field of bioethics, obviously because I’m married to one of the top bioethicists in the country,” Fauci said. “Her thesis was the ethics of clinical trials in vaccines.”
Bioethics may be an underappreciated public health field, but it is of vital importance, according to Fauci.
“A lot of people feel, ‘Oh I don’t really need an ethics consult; I can figure this one out — you know, ethics comes naturally,’” Fauci said. “A whole variety of things that, you know, you think you know a lot about until you’re hit with a very important question that requires people who have skills and experience in ethics that can really help you out.”
Vaccine distribution processes vary from state to state, which has brought more attention to racial and socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. health care system. Of the 13 million Americans who received the vaccine during the first month of distribution in the United States, only 5% were Black, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine distribution is an issue that expands beyond the United States, with 130 countries having yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine.
Ethicists play an essential role in the debate over which individuals to prioritize when distributing the vaccine, according to Fauci.
“Ethicists should appreciate how important their calling is, their field, because they often feel that it’s a field that’s kind of vague — a little bit disrespected,” Fauci said. “When you get vaccines available and you look at the availability of vaccine throughout the world vs. the rich countries, those are all ethical considerations.”
Science is intrinsically tied to the humanities, and to be a good doctor your knowledge must be holistic, according to Fauci.
“I would say with all do respect to the hardcore science — you know, biology and chemistry and all the things you really need to know — that my skill as a physician is dependent as much on the humanitarian education that I got with the classics than understanding the biology of a particular organ system,” Fauci said.