摘要：We are starting to vaccinate our way out of the pandemic, but we shouldn't let that make us complacent about the underlying problems, writes Graham Lawton
I RECEIVED the first dose of my covid-19 vaccine a couple of weeks ago, and it felt like a moment of liberation. By coincidence, it went into my arm on the anniversary of the announcement of the UK’s first national lockdown. As I write, we are eagerly anticipating the gradual lifting of the third such lockdown and the return of some freedoms: a walk with friends, a drink in the pub, a swim in a lido.
The UK’s well-organised vaccine roll-out has played a huge part in bringing us to this point and we are indebted to the National Health Service – although unlike many of my fellow citizens, I am not prepared to forgive and forget the catalogue of inept and costly government decisions that necessitated a third lockdown in the first place.
That aside, I am relieved to be brewing up my first batch of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (I assume that my sore arm and throbbing head were signs that my immune system was busy doing that). I also hope everyone who wants to be gets vaccinated soon. But at the same time, I am slightly alarmed at one of the unintended consequences of a hopefully successful global vaccination programme.
The source of my alarm is something called moral hazard, which is a familiar concept in the world of climate change. This is the idea that well-intentioned attempts to reduce risk can create perverse incentives to take greater risks. For example, a person who is insured against house fires may be less careful with matches, knowing that if the worst happens the insurance company will pick up the pieces.
Don’t get me wrong: I am wholly in favour of covid-19 vaccination. It is the only viable exit strategy from the pandemic and, despite the feverish fantasies of some self-appointed covid-19 sceptics, environmentalists like me don’t wish for perpetual lockdown. So bear with me.
In climate circles, moral hazard usually comes up in connection with get-out-of-jail-free tech such as geoengineering. If we create a backstop on global warming by, say, pumping sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, what is the incentive for radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions or reinventing our energy systems? The hazard is that we procrastinate and overshoot, leaving ourselves wholly dependent on pumping ever more sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere while the ocean acidifies beyond rescue.
“We need to prevent more genies escaping from more bottles, not just rely on anti-genie gene technology”
Moral hazard is also an issue in medicine. For example, some research links the rise in obesity to advances in treatments for heart disease and diabetes. Ditto vaccination: the HPV vaccine, for instance, has been blamed for increases in teenage pregnancy as teens who have had it may be more likely to take risks, safe in the knowledge that they are (probably) immune to a sexually transmitted virus that causes genital cancer.
As yet, however, I haven’t seen these dots being joined together in a discussion of the moral hazard of immunisation against covid-19. So, at risk of being curmudgeonly, I would like to start that debate.
There is little doubt that SARS-CoV-2 arose as a direct result of human encroachment on nature. The most likely source is a wild bat in China or nearby. How and where it jumped into humans remains unknown, but the wildlife trade is a prime suspect.
The moral hazard is clear. If we can shield ourselves from the consequences with a vaccine, what incentive do we have to fix our dysfunctional relationship with the natural world? The news that work has begun on universal vaccines that can protect us against any future coronaviruses only exacerbates that hazard.
What we really need is a recalibration of the relationship between humans, the natural environment and non-human animals. This is the basis of One Health, an emerging field built on recognition that the well-being of humans, the natural world and animals are one and the same.
This is no longer a nice-to-have, it is a must-have. The non-profit research organisation EcoHealth Alliance has proposed that protection from diseases lurking in animals should be seen as one of the vital services that intact nature rewards us with. If we look after nature, it will reciprocate. If we don’t, it will retaliate.
Let me reiterate: I am not arguing against vaccines. The covid-19 genie is out of the bottle and we must face the consequences. What I am arguing is that we need to prevent more genies escaping from more bottles, not just rely on anti-genie gene technology.
Yes, we are about to vaccinate our way out of the worst global health crisis of a generation. By all means let us create a universal coronavirus vaccine and celebrate it as a triumph. But let’s beware the moral hazard of doing so, lest we trap ourselves in a downward spiral of environmental destruction from which there is no technological get-out.