Rabbi Yuval Cherlow
Rabbi Yuval CherlowEliran Baruch

Director of the Tzohar Center of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow addressed the Global Virtual Conference on Bioethics and the Coronavirus Pandemic last week outlining unprecedented ethical challenges presented as a result of COVID-19.

The online conference, produced in cooperation with UNESCO, was attended by over 1,500 medical, academic and religious leaders from around the world.

Rabbi Cherlow, who has been active in advising multiple government and hospital ethics committees on issues relating to patient care throughout the coronavirus crisis, said that perhaps more than ever before, ethical decisions have forced choices between what is medically advisable and what might best serve social or financial interests.

Rabbi Cherlow traced the evolution of these dilemmas from the initial outbreak of the crisis, where questions focused on how medical equipment would be allocated, to the more recent challenge of how vaccines could be ethically distributed.

“In every stage of this continuing global battle against COVID-19 we have been forced to ask ethical questions regarding whether we should solely act based on what is the best medical avenue or whether we need to address social concerns like whether public and government officials might deserve enhanced access because they have a certain importance in society,” he explained. “The ethical imperative is certainly to favor medical considerations but there is no denying that this crisis has introduced tensions to favor social or even financial considerations like never before.”

With regards to vaccination development and distribution, Rabbi Cherlow said these dueling interests often positioned governments against private industry: “While private companies might have the resources, logistics and experience to produce and deliver vaccines more quickly and effectively, they are also driven by financial interest which could impact on best ethical practice by being enticed to favor richer nations and communities over poorer ones. Ethical practice demands putting those considerations aside.”

While acknowledging that the country should be lauded for its internationally leading vaccination effort, he also presented a very real ethical challenge facing Israel surrounding their ongoing vaccination development project.

“Given that the world already has proven successful vaccines that are on the market, can we ethically justify continuing to invest massive resources in our own vaccine development, which involves a certain level of human risk that comes with testing?” he questioned.

He concluded that ethical deliberations always recognize some level of risk, but that the benefit from the potential of an additional vaccine on the market justifies the continuation of this development.

Rabbi Cherlow further said that carefully weighing all issues through the lens of ethical practice is a critical element in the overall success of the vaccination effort.

“The public has to believe that they are being treated with transparency and they need to trust that their government is acting in their best interests,” he said. “Once you lose society’s confidence you will lose the efficacy of the vaccine.”

The Global Virtual Conference on Bioethics and the Coronavirus Pandemic was jointly sponsored by the University of Haifa and the University of Porto in Portugal along with the Portuguese Association of Bioethics. The conference included presentations from Dr. Otmar Kloiber, Secretary General of the World Medical Association and Professor Annette Kennedy, President of the International Council of Nurses alongside many other prominent presenters.