Vaccine testing for emerging infections: The case for individual randomisation

Nir Eyal, Marc Lipsitch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


During the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, many opposed the use of individually randomised controlled trials to test candidate Ebola vaccines. For a raging fatal disease, they explained, it is unethical to relegate some study participants to control arms. In Zika and future emerging infections, similar opposition may hinder urgent vaccine research, so it is best to address these questions now. This article lays out the ethical case for individually randomised control in testing vaccines against many emerging infections, including lethal infections in lowincome countries, even when at no point in the trial do the controls receive the countermeasures being tested. When individual randomisation is feasible-and it often will be-it tends to save more lives than alternative designs would. And for emerging infections, individual randomisation also tends as such to improve care, access to the experimental vaccine and prospects for all participants relative to their opportunities absent the trial, and no less than alternative designs would. That obtains even under placebo control and without equipoise-requiring which would undermine individual randomisation and the alternative designs that opponents proffered. Our arguments expound four oftenneglected factors: benefits to non-participants, benefits to participants once a trial is over including post-trial access to the study intervention, participants' prospects before randomisation to arms and the near-inevitable disparity between arms in any randomised controlled trial.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-631
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Medical Ethics
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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