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Ethics of the CDC’s Recommended COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Plan

Martin Peterson, an expert in ethics and decision theory, explains the ethics of the CDC’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan.

Photo of Martin Peterson

Applied and professional ethics professor Martin Peterson said he agrees with the CDC recommendation to give the vaccine to the group most at risk of contracting the virus first.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

According to, two Americans die from COVID-19 every minute. Pfizer offers hope in the form of a 95 percent effective vaccine. In a recent 13-to-1 vote, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided the first round of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. would be given to residents in nursing homes and health care workers. However, some experts are questioning the ethics of giving the first round of the vaccine to people most at-risk of dying from the virus. 

“Given the current circumstances, it is ethical to give these groups the vaccine first,” Martin Peterson, applied and professional ethics professor in the Department of Philosophy said. “If we do not give a vaccine to those groups now, it’s more likely that they will get the disease and die. Therefore, it is a reasonable decision.”

During the bird flu pandemic, Peterson conducted research and wrote two articles about the ethics of the bird flu vaccine distribution. His work focused on whether it was ethical to prioritize those who contributed more to society than others.

“Although it was a different vaccine and a different pandemic, the questions of ethics were the same as they are for COVID-19,” Peterson said. “The basic idea that you should first give the vaccine to the most vulnerable people—in this case, the elderly, health care workers, and then essential workers—is what I evaluated back in 2008. Based on the information that was available then, you could argue they made the right decision to distribute a vaccine, despite the risks.”

Although the vaccine has mostly positive effects, it is still new, which means society faces many social, ethical dilemmas. State governments are the ones responsible for navigating these dilemmas; once the vaccine becomes available, state governors will have the final say in vaccine distribution in their state. 

“Because all states in the U.S. are different and have been affected by the pandemic differently, it is not unreasonable to let the governors make those final decisions about how to distribute the vaccine,” Peterson said. “But the ethical question of, ‘Why should one person get the vaccine before another?’ remains the same, and the answer to that question depends on your ultimate ethical outlook.”

From an ethical standpoint, the vaccine is the best option available, though it is not the ultimate solution. According to Peterson, COVID-19 will likely be around for many more years, so it is important to trust medical experts who have the public’s best interest in mind. 

“The best ethical approach to take until you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 is applying the precautionary principle, ‘It is better to be safe than sorry,’” Peterson said. “Too many people have become optimistic in thinking that everything will be the same as it used to be, which is probably not the case. Although we should welcome the vaccine, we should continue to follow all safety precautions until medical experts say otherwise.”