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The global fervor to develop and deliver a vaccine to protect people against COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, has been extraordinary. COVID-19 vaccine development has been pursued at an unprecedented speed and scale; following the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines, rapid mass vaccination deployment efforts commenced in all earnest. This fervor to get a needle into every arm has now led to the European Commission president calling on the EU’s 27 member states to consider mandatory vaccination across Europe. With an intensification in COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and many refusing to be vaccinated, an important question that arises is whether obligatory COVID-19 vaccination policies are ethical and legal in terms of international human rights norms and standards. Article 4(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was ratified by 193 States Parties worldwide enumerates a specific list of human rights from which no derogation is allowed even in times of a public emergency. Included in this list of non-derogable rights is a sub-category of internationally recognized human rights known as “physical integrity rights” that includes the right to be free from medical or scientific experimentation. International human rights law is unambiguous that all people should be afforded their non-derogable fundamental human right to free and informed consent. Normative ethical perspectives and legal obligations erga omnes dictate that States Parties should not make COVID-19 vaccination mandatory in breach of International Human Rights Law relating to non-derogable rights that are regarded as core human rights, jus cogens. A bioethics perspective, rooted in fundamental human rights, should play a crucial role in the COVID-19 pandemic.
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