Clinical trial of vaccines using voluntary and incentivised participation of convicts may provide a feasible and humane way for criminals to be of use to society
Like any society, our society too punishes the ones who deviate from its laws. To put this argument in perspective, the accused of a crime if proven guilty is convicted of the charges levied against him.
However, motivation for punishment has taken a tectonic shift; a delinquent was invariably considered the devil or his agent and would be dealt with brutal retribution whereas, in the modern times, the endeavour of the establishment is to eliminate criminal opportunities and retribution is relatively more humanitarian.
With the purpose of reforming delinquent, various measures have been taken from giving them an opportunity to learn a calling and earn from it to also being given a chance to pursue formal education which in few exceptional cases resulted in the prisoner being qualified enough to take up occupation of a lawyer or a bureaucrat.
It is not only society or the concerned governmental authority (IES) alone but one would strongly hope that most, if not all the prisoners would also like to be given opportunities to reform and most importantly, to redeem themselves from the guilt of the crime that was once committed. And my assertion is even stronger for the convicts who are on death row.
Death row convicts, if executed, will never get any opportunity to redeem themselves of the guilt of the crime committed by them and their bodies would be consigned to flames and will go to waste without serving any cause for the sake of humanity whatsoever. Therefore, policymakers, judges, criminologists and penologists must devise a way by which the convicts who committed a heinous crime against the society and humanity can give back something to the society and redeem themselves to some extent.
Putting it in context, the convicts and more so, death row convicts must be allowed to volunteer themselves for the clinical trials of the vaccine in India like that of Coronavirus vaccine. If the trials are successful, it will pave the way towards effective prevention and cure of this deadly disease and revolutionise the treatment protocols of this lethal virus which will be in the interest of the country, in the interest of humanity and in the larger public interest.
India as a large nation having a population of over 1.35 billion human beings also needs a body of research and clinical trials of the vaccines to prevent the attack of many diseases like that of COVID-19 which at present resulted in an emergency-like situation and wreaked havoc in our country. India desperately needs volunteers for this purpose and clinical trials of the vaccines are the need of the hour which will serve a huge public interest. India is a poor country and if we develop an efficacious and indigenous vaccine which can combat the deadly epidemic, it will serve a huge cause of humanity and larger public interest.
We are conscious of the fact that at present, there is no statute book in India which prescribes clinical trials of the convicts and interestingly enough, there are no statutes or case laws which prohibit this and therefore, legislation can be brought in to address this issue so a large population can get the benefit of the vaccines, which might be developed and also that the convicts also get a much-needed chance to redeem themselves and give back to society.
Over and above the established mitigating, aggravating or intervening circumstances, which a judicial officer is ought to consider while sentencing, the act of volunteering of a convict for clinical trials must also be weighed in deciding their appeals in higher courts or while exercising the executive powers to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remission of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence.
Great care can be taken to keep a check on over-enthusiastic pharmaceutical companies and governmental agencies to save the vulnerable population to be treated as guinea pigs to further their economic ends and incidents, preventing incidents like that of the 1930s and 40s carried on by the German physicians, who justified various unethical medical practices including that of human experimentation to achieve racial hygiene or that the one at the Ohio State Penitentiary happened in around mid-1950s where an ad was published seeking 25 volunteers for cancer research. A few days later, the number went to ninety-six volunteers, which quickly increased to 150 and informed consent of such prisoners was not taken.
Indigenous agencies like Clinical Trials Registry-India (CTRI) can be involved in making this a possibility and provision(s) related to the autonomy of the trial investigator under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 can be amended for the purpose. A new piece of legislation can be also brought in to achieve the purpose of providing for adequate measures keeping in line with the principles of voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential; the experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study and not random and unnecessary in nature. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment. The experiment should avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury. No experiment should be conducted where there is a prior reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment. During the course of the experiment, the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he/she has reached a physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems impossible and irresponsible.
The foregoing principles were given its due by the US military courts, took place in at the Palace of Justice in the case of 'The United States of America v. Karl Brandt', et al popularly known as 'The Doctors' trial'. The honourable judges observed, "The great weight of the evidence before us is to the effect that certain types of medical experiments on human beings, when kept within reasonably well-defined bounds, conform to the ethics of the medical profession generally. The protagonists of the practice of human experimentation justify their views on the basis that such experiments yield results for the good of society that are unprocurable by other methods or means of study. All agree however that certain basic principles must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical and legal concept"
Views expressed are strictly personal