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A deep dive into the ethics of vaccine trials

Machteld van den Berg
Research Awards

“By working within the Foundations for Innovation program and the Advisory Committee for Research Ethics, I had the unique opportunity to bridge the two areas,” says 2017 IDRC Research Award Recipient Matchteld van den Berg. Those two areas are also the focus of van den Berg’s graduate studies, exploring the ethics around vaccine access, informed consent, and individual autonomy.

In recent years there has been an accelerated push to develop a malaria vaccine, she says. But questions surface around justice and the vulnerability of the research participants and intended benefactors.

During fieldwork in Tanzania, she spoke with the caretakers of children who had been enrolled in a clinical vaccine trial to improve her understanding of their experiences. “Mothers may not have access to healthcare,” she says, “so consenting to a vaccine trial, regardless of the risks or conditions, may be the only feasible method to access medical care.” What’s more, the financial incentives to participate may be such that they override other considerations.

“Gaining insight into the realities participants inhabit is essential for conducting ethical research in a just and fair manner,” she concludes. “I think we sometimes forget the relatedness we have with one another and the importance of making those connections. Through this we can best learn from one another to design research studies that are respectful and effective, building trust and relationships along the way.”

For van den Berg, the research “refined my sense of the importance of global collaboration on key issues in development. This has impacted the direction I would like to take my research and, ultimately, the career path I follow,” she says.

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