Data Sharing During Pandemics: Reciprocity, Solidarity, and Limits to Obligations

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 20 (4):667-672 (2023)
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South Africa shared with the world the warning of a new strain of SARS-CoV2, Omicron, in November 2021. As a result, many high-income countries (HICs) instituted complete travel bans on persons leaving South Africa and other neighbouring countries. These bans were unnecessary from a scientific standpoint, and they ran counter to the International Health Regulations. In short, South Africa was penalized for sharing data. Data sharing during pandemics is commonly justified by appeals to solidarity. In this paper, we argue that solidarity is, at best, an aspirational ideal to work toward but that it cannot ground an obligation to share data. Instead, low-and-middle income countries (LIMCs) should be guided by the principle of reciprocity, which states that we ought to return good for good received. Reciprocity is necessarily a conditional principle. LMICs, we argue, should only share data during future pandemics on the condition that HICs provide enforceable assurances that the benefits of data sharing will be equitably distributed and that LMICs won’t be penalized for sharing information.



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Maxwell Smith
University of Western Ontario