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History demonstrates need for urgent action to ensure ethical research in global health emergencies

Posted on 28 January 2020

Experts are calling for urgent action to ensure research undertaken in global health emergencies is carried out ethically.

In a report published today, the experts outline how researchers, governments and organisations can take a more ethical and collaborative approach to conducting research during infectious disease outbreaks or natural disasters.

The report is the result of a two-year enquiry from The Nuffield Council on Bioethics by a team of international researchers and institutions, including the University of York.

New threats

The publication happens to coincide with news of the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus, which appears to have originated in Wuhan, China – a reminder of how suddenly new threats can emerge and the important role of international and collaborative research in understanding how to respond effectively.

A member of the report’s working group, Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories, based within  the Department of History at the University of York, said: “Our report sets out a new way for the international community to work together ethically and transparently in the event of a health emergency, for the equal benefit of people around the world.

“Historical experience shows that in the event of a disease outbreak, those involved in health research systems have not always acted in a way that considers a local population and their culture, society and needs.”


The report acknowledges how the pressures and distressing circumstances of health emergencies can lead to uncertainty about what is ethically acceptable in research. The experts warn that valuable research can be impeded, or unethical practices can creep in.

The Nuffield Council’s initial call for action, which has been translated into multiple languages, highlights a number of proposals including:

  • More investment in community engagement so that local voices can be heard, and that everyone involved in research in global health emergencies is treated fairly and respectfully.
  • Ensuring that, before proceeding with any research project, participants’ basic health needs are being addressed. Funders will need to work in partnerships with humanitarian organisations and health ministries to achieve this.
  • Better support for emergency planning, to secure robust health and health research systems - given the vital importance of properly resourced preparedness between emergencies.

The recommendations in the report are based on three core values: fairness, equal respect and helping to reduce suffering. The report presents these values in the form of an ‘ethical compass’ to guide the conduct of the wide range of people involved in research in global health emergencies.

Listening to communities

Professor Michael Parker, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics working group, said:  “Research undertaken during global health emergencies involves real people, families, and communities. It asks a great deal of them, primarily in the interests of others, at a time of great distress, fear, and vulnerability.

“We are asking anyone involved in planning, funding, and conducting research to bear this at the forefront of their minds throughout all stages of research. Listening to communities, understanding their needs and designing research that will truly help to reduce people’s suffering whilst demonstrating respect, are the ideals that all research projects should be striving for.”

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About this research

Research in global health emergencies is published by The Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The report involved researchers from a wide range of disciplines and institutions including the universities of York, Oxford, Warwick, Geneva and Ghana; the Chinese University of Hong Kong; the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil; the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Ministry of Health, Liberia.

The Nuffield Foundation, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust funded the report.

Explore our research here.