The Oxford Martin Programme on

Collective Responsibility

for Infectious Disease

The Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease programme ran from 2015 - 2022. The following page is an archived resource.

The programme was led by Professor Dame Angela McLean, who remains part of the School as director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Pandemic Genomics, Professor Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, and Professor Mark Harrison, Professor of the History of Medicine. Professors Savulescu and Harrison continue to work together as directors of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, who led the global clinical trials of the Oxford coronavirus vaccine was also a key member of the programme team. All of whom worked diligently to apply learnings from the programme and continue its research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The programme was also behind the Typhoidland exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science and Weston Library in Oxford, the CDC Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and which is now a permanent part of the Museum of Oxford.

The Challenge

As drugs and vaccinations have proliferated, protection from disease has increasingly been seen as an individual problem requiring individual action. But antimicrobial resistance, vaccine refusal, and rapid global trade and travel have substantially undermined the impact of the drugs and vaccines that we have come to take for granted.

Although significant resources are devoted to the scientific investigation of the way that diseases spread, the ‘human factor’ has largely been ignored.

Understanding the effects of policy, individual and group behaviour and psychology on the genesis and control of infectious diseases will allow us to identify how responsibility for infectious diseases - and the strategies that might be employed to mitigate them - is distributed throughout the world.

Collective failure to manage the human factor contributes to the threat of infection, and the very real consequences for those afflicted by diseases such as influenza, malaria and childhood infections. Devising, implementing and enforcing a strategy to remedy this will require a behaviour change derived from a new understanding of collective moral responsibility.

Bringing together zoology, history, philosophy, psychology and medicine, our four-year project addresses the central research question: What is the role of collective responsibility in the genesis of, and appropriate response to, the threat of infectious disease? Having identified what we should expect to encounter in terms of infectious threats, and their social and economic consequences, if the world sticks to ‘business as usual’, we will, amongst other things:

  • investigate individual and collective moral responsibility in this context
  • identify psychological and historical factors relevant to the spread of disease
  • define collective responsibility in a useful, practical way
  • examine implications of potential strategies for fundamental and legal rights
  • investigate how techniques from psychology and behavioural economics might be used to increase a sense of collective responsibility and improve behaviour
  • identify and recommend solutions

We seek to generate disease-specific policy recommendations for collective action on influenza, malaria, antibiotic resistance and vaccine-preventable childhood infections. With the ultimate ambition to create a new climate of collective responsibility for infectious disease, and to ensure that policy makers, public health and medical professionals, and individuals are mobilized to confront and tackle the human factor in infectious diseases.

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Typhoid: A ghost of the past that never really went away

For most people living in the United States and Europe, typhoid is a distant memory, a ghost of a disease from another time. But typhoid never disappeared. For many people living in low- and middle-income countries, typhoid is endemic and an all too common risk faced predominantly by children. Samantha Vanderslott and Claas Kirchhelle examine what we need to do to ensure everyone is protected from typhoid.

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