Viewpoint: Prioritizing racial minorities for COVID-19 vaccines

Racial minorities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Prioritizing access to a vaccine for these minorities can be justified on epidemiological, economic, and social justice grounds, according to a new JAMA viewpoint article co-authored by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams.

The October 14, 2020 article noted that the ethics and legality of race-based policies in the U.S. have been controversial, but offered thoughts on how to prioritize vaccine allocations ethically and legally.

They wrote that rates of COVID-19 deaths, COVID-19-related unemployment, housing evictions, and hospitalizations have all been higher among minority groups, including Black, Indigenous, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Asian populations. “Ignoring these effects in allocating vaccines could exacerbate these differences, with an influence lasting likely far beyond the end of the pandemic,” they wrote. They also pointed out that both the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the World Health Organization have recommended that policy makers allocate vaccines so as to reduce health disparities.

The authors acknowledged that there is no direct precedent in which courts have considered race in allocating scarce health care resources. However, “a vaccine distribution formula … could lawfully prioritize populations based on factors such as geography, socioeconomic status, and housing density that would favor racial minorities de facto, but not explicitly include race,” they wrote.

Williams also participated in an October 14 JAMA Live conversation on the topic of prioritizing minorities for coronavirus vaccines.

Read the JAMA Viewpoint article: Is It Lawful and Ethical to Prioritize Racial Minorities for COVID-19 Vaccines?

Watch the JAMA Live conversation: Prioritizing Minorities for Coronavirus Vaccination