Covid-19 Vaccine Ethics

It is entirely appropriate to include a piece examining the ethics of Covid-19 Vaccine on my Tagoreanworld blog, given Tagore’s insistence on the importance of truth, and also his criticism of industrialisation and the pursuit of profit which is the primary cause of the pandemic. The argument that industrialisation and the pursuit of profit – late capitalism globalisation – has caused this pandemic, as it has caused other devastating virus diseases, is set out in a must-read book by human ecologist Andreas Malm: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, which he wrote in April 2020 – and nothing in the book has been put into doubt as the pandemic continued to rage since then. The Coronavirus is an example of zoonotic spillover, where an animal disease is passed on to humans, often with an amplifier host in between. Malm predicts that this process will recur because the driving force is deforestation to make way for, in particular, beef, soybean, palm oil and wood products, breaking up wildlife areas and putting the hosts of virus diseases – often bats – under pressure and stress such that they move out of their habitats in search of food. Malm cites the Marxist scientist Rob Wallace saying that ‘opening the forests to global circuits of capital’ is in itself ‘a primary cause’ of all this sickness. Malm continues ‘It is unrestrained capital accumulationthat so violently shakes the tree where bats and other animals live. Out falls a drizzle of viruses.’ (Malm, p. 50). Coronavirus may be a global pandemic but it is caused by exploitation of forests in developing countries driven by demand from developed countries, an ecologically unequal exchange which is unethical and dangerous.

Tagore’s alternative to industrialisation and the pursuit of profit was relocalisation, rural reconstruction, the establishment of culturally rich, self-sufficient local communities. Malm briefly mentions the relocalisation alternative in a section entitled ‘A brief obituary for anarchism’, and moves on to advocating ‘War Communism’ in the second half of his book. The strength of his arguments has left me in a quandary since I had been encouraged to see, during the first lockdown, what Malm refers to as ‘an efflorescence of “mutual aid”, as neighbours and local communities formed groups to help those in dire straits’. (Malm, p. 123.)

The strand of relocalisation which I have been actively involved in is permaculture – permanent agriculture and permanent culture – which is a teaching movement, passing on the ethics and principles of designing ways for local communities to meet their needs from diverse, productive ecosystems based on natural models.[1] In my writing on Tagore I have always seen his relevance, his hopes for a new dawn, as connected to movements like permaculture, out of which the Transition network emerged in recent years, to help local groups turn to local food growing, and local craft skills and creativity.[2] The charity Plants For A Future (PFAF) which I have been managing for fifteen years also emerged out of permaculture, and provides an internationally important online database with details of 8000 useful plants, of interest to designers of mixed perennial plantings such as food forests, to combine local community food production with drawdown.[3] My next writing task is to complete some introductory sections for a new book to be published by PFAF entitled Plants for Your Food Forest, but Malm’s book has raised new doubts in my mind about the value of food forests in a global solution to the complex crisis we are faced with. A food forest is disturbingly like an island of diverse habitat for wildlife living in amongst the food plants, and no one planting and tending a food forest is going to insist on culling any species or order, in particular Chiroptera or bats, so might food forests make zoonotic spillover more likely?

My ethical dilemma over Covid-19 vaccine

The ethical imperative regarding zoonotic spillover is to stop destroying wild forests. But another, quite different, ethical dilemma has come to me after receiving my first injection of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine.

A few weeks ago I received an appeal for funds from Animal Free Research UK with a letter from a researcher embarking on a PhD ‘to further our understanding of why age and metabolic disease are such bad risk factors for COVID-19 infection, and to investigate new, animal free treatments for improving the response of an ageing or compromised immune system any virus, including the one that causes COVID-19’. I wrote to this researcher, and what follows is part of my letter.

I was invited to have a vaccine dose quite early on because I am on the NHS list of people who are ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’; I have a compromised immune system because my spleen was removed following a car crash in 2019. I have been shielding during both lockdowns so to have the vaccine was a relief, despite knowing that it would have been tested on animals, as this is currently the law. Nevertheless, I was shocked to learn from the AstraZeneca leaflet what the vaccine contains: ‘Recombinant, replication-deficient chimpanzee adenovirus vector encoding the SARS-CoV-2 Spike glycoprotein. Produced in genetically modified human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cells. This product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs)’. Apart from the ‘yuk factor’ of ‘human embryonic kidney’, health and environmental concerns over GM have been around for decades. People with such ethical concerns and ‘alternative’ views would seem to have grounds for worrying about this vaccine, which brings me to my second concern.

[scan of part of the leaflet]

There have been reports recently of a celebrity campaign directed at people from BAME backgrounds who are worried about vaccines, with the strong assumption that there are no sensible grounds for those worries, and that they are being targeted by misinformation and anti-vaccine propaganda. Similarly, the local BBC news was very dismissive of a leaflet circulating in Totnes with concerns about the vaccines, complaining in particular that they couldn’t find out what is in them. (It was mentioned on the programme that they demanded to know if there is mercury or aluminium, on which they were reassured by a professor from Exeter university). One of the concerns of the BAME people was that the vaccine contains alcohol and they were reassured by the celebrities – but according to the AstraZeneca leaflet, it does contain a small amount of alcohol.

In summary, I have ethical concerns about how the vaccine was derived, and I feel that there should be more transparency, and people who are worried should have their questions answered and be treated with respect, not assumed to be either cranks or naive and credulous victims of misinformation and propaganda.

In my letter to the animal free researcher I said that I am very interested that his research is about new treatments for any virus because I am aware that zoonotic spillover is not new and is going to continue because of the way forests and other wildlife areas are becoming isolated into vulnerable islands by roads, mining, grazing, monocultures and even subsistence farming (Andreas Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century (Verso, 2020).

The dilemma I was faced with after my jab was whether or not to let the contents of the vaccine be known. I kept it to myself for a while and then discussed it with a fellow trustee of PFAF, and then I wrote my letter to the researcher. I did not put anything about the disturbing contents on facebook in case it was shared and gave rise to a scare story. And yet I feel this ought to be shared so that people can make informed decisions, such as choosing a different vaccine. I hope I have done the right thing.

[full scan of leaflet]

[1] Permaculture Education, www.permaculture.org.uk/education [accessed 29/12/20]

[2] Transition Network, www.transitionnetwork.org [accessed 29/12/20]

[3] Christine Marsh, ‘Spreading the Food Forest Revolution with Edible Perennials’, www.pfaf.org/plants/spreading-the-food-forest-revolution-with-edible-perennials/ [accessed 29/12/20]

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