Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, has provided a Catholic perspective on many thorny ethical issues as a TV commentator, in the classroom and in front of legislators across the country. His column on bioethics appears in this and other diocesan newspapers around the country.
On Oct. 18, he will be speaking here in the archdiocese on a topic that impacts us all and that he is uniquely qualified to address: COVID-19.
The Leaven offers just this brief preview of the types of topics he’ll be tackling later this month.
Q. Father Tad, how has your unusual area of expertise put you in a unique position to advise various decision-makers on the pandemic?
A. I was trained as a neuroscientist and worked on cloning genes for molecules expressed in the human brain while I was at Yale. However, I began my work at Yale in the immunology department, before switching to neuroscience, and that immunology background has proven helpful in terms of being able to follow and comment on vaccine development and certain other aspects of the COVID pandemic.
Q. Early on, Archbishop Joseph Naumann, on behalf of the USCCB, called for a vaccine that did not utilize material from aborted fetuses. Do you think the vaccine we finally wind up with will meet that standard?
A. At last count, there were more than 321 vaccines for COVID-19 under development. Most of them do not utilize cells derived from abortions to manufacture the vaccines, so there is a reasonable chance that the vaccine we finally end up with will not rely on these problematic cells. However, there is not a way to accurately predict the outcome ahead of time.
Q. If the final vaccine does not utilize cells derived from abortions, do you think that will partly reflect the work of you, Archbishop Naumann and others in this area?
A. No, ethical questions like these are not driving factors in decision- making at the highest levels of the pharmaceutical industry. What predominantly directs their efforts will be considerations like expediency, effectiveness and marketability.
Ethics tend to play catch-up afterwards, if they are even acknowledged during the process of vaccine development. We still have plenty of work to do when it comes to enlightening consciences.
Q. What do you see the biggest challenge facing the country in terms of distributing the vaccination?
A. I do not foresee massive problems with vaccine distribution. This country has been distributing vaccines with a reasonable degree of success for many years, including the successful distribution of the flu vaccine through various channels. I suspect widespread distribution of a COVID vaccine will face the usual set of hiccups that accompany the deployment of any new vaccine, but otherwise is likely to proceed reasonably well.
Q. If an ethically sound and well-tested vaccine is produced, what is our obligation as Christians and as citizens to take it to defeat the spread of coronavirus?
A. Each person must evaluate their individual situation and make a good judgment of prudence regarding the benefit to burden ratio for a COVID-19 vaccine. For example, health care workers who have not been exposed to COVID-19 should probably consider quite seriously the benefits of getting vaccinated, and their workplace may even require it.
However, some others in the general population may need to decline to be vaccinated, because they may have a compromised immune system, for example, or an allergy to some of the ingredients found in vaccines.
Vaccines help establish herd immunity, so to the extent that a vaccine has been appropriately tested as safe and effective, it will make sense for many people to choose, on their own initiative, to be immunized. Vaccines, generally speaking, are a positive option and have contributed greatly to improving public health.
To ask your own questions of Father Tad, join him Oct. 18, at 7 p.m., at Holy Angels Church, 15438 Leavenworth Rd., Basehor.