The trial is not completed, but locally online there is already discussion of making the hypothetical vaccine against Covid-19 mandatory (with all the imaginable risks if something goes wrong).
Between the reverie of an underwater tunnel that connects Malta and Gozo, and some reflections on the government’s work in these troubled months, many touched on the topic of a future vaccine for Covid-19, stating that in their opinion it should not be mandatory. This stance did not have great echo, because the vaccine that could put an end to the pandemic still seemed to be yet to come. At least until Vladimir Putin’s thunderous announcement arrived: the Russian vaccine is ready, it works, even my daughter has taken it. Nobody bought it: in the absence of scientific evidence, Putin’s sortie was soon dismissed as mere propaganda. Some took the ball and in controversy with others suggested a petition to ask that the future anti-Covid vaccine be made mandatory.
And so, waiting for the vaccine, we have the controversy about the mandatory nature of the vaccine that is not there . It would all be dismissed as beach chatter, were it not that the discussion on the vaccination obligation is a serious matter: it affects the health of millions and has already left a lot of rubble behind it. We could then discuss what mandatory means: if someone does not get vaccinated, what happens? Are you fined? Arrested? Do we deny them treatment if they fall ill, as the most fanatical propose? At the time of the coronavirus we could also discuss liberticidal biopower and community solidarity . All very interesting, but pleonastic.
Because if it is true that the vaccination obligation is a complex issue that calls into question both the scientific community, health policy, and society as a whole – and on which different positions can legitimately be supported, as recognised by the Organization World Health Organisation (WHO) – the point here is that we still don’t even know what we are talking about and discussing the obligation seems surreal.
We don’t know if we’ll ever have a vaccine. And if the experiment is successful, we do not know how effective the vaccine will be in different population groups, nor consequently to whom it will be really useful. And most importantly, we don’t know what side effects it will have, nor will we be able to know until the vaccine hits the market and is administered to millions of people. The trial that precedes the approval, in fact, involves a few thousand volunteers, so it is not statistically able to highlight any less frequent side effects. It usually takes years to establish how safe a vaccine is. The immediate vaccination obligation would therefore require millions of people to expose themselves to a risk that is still partially unknown, with all that one can imagine if something should go wrong: an irremediable loss of confidence in vaccinations – in all vaccinations – and incalculable damage to public health.
When it comes to drugs and vaccines, rush is always a bad advisor. The obligation to vaccinate against measles – however much discussed and questionable – came after decades of large-scale use, which made it possible to highlight how the benefits far outweighed the risks. Today the race for the anti-Covid vaccine in which the world superpowers are engaged, compared by the Economist to the space race of the 1960s, risks instead sacrificing the time of clinical trials on the altar of geopolitics. And the name assigned to the Russian vaccine, Sputnik 5, seems to be done on purpose to confirm this. In this scenario, more caution would be needed than ever.
The shortcut of obligation , however, is always a defeat for health policies, since it is not based on a pact of mutual trust and cooperation between citizens and institutions. Not to mention that any risk imposed, large or small, aggravates the perception of danger, further undermining trust. The obligation should therefore be considered the last resort, when in an emergency situation there is no other viable way to protect public health. But in this case it will be months, perhaps years, before we have a vaccine, if we ever get it; therefore there would be plenty of time to plan an information and awareness campaign of public opinion. It would do a lot of good to the entire vaccination program. And we would finally begin to treat citizens as adults.