Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Vaccines, Legal Liability & Learning from History

Governments are shielding COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits.

COVID-19 deaths recorded over the past week, ending Dec. 11, 2020. Click to enlarge; source here

Ten years ago, Germany’s weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, ran a story titled: Reconstruction of a Mass Hysteria: The Swine Flu Panic of 2009. It argued the world had overreacted the previous year to a strain of influenza also known as H1N1. Despite massive government concern, it said, that illness had turned out to be “relatively harmless.”

From our current standpoint, it’s difficult to disagree. As the chart below demonstrates, during the worst week of the H1N1 pandemic, in 29 European countries combined the weekly death toll never reached 350:

2009 and 2010 H1N1 combined deaths per week in 29 European countries; click to enlarge, source here

Last week, more than 33,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in Europe. An additional 16,000 were recorded in the United States. (See the chart at the top of this post.)

Then, as now, governments pre-ordered millions of doses of vaccine that didn’t yet exist. Then, as now, governments assured the public these vaccines were safe, while quietly protecting vaccine manufacturers from legal liability. As Shaun Lintern reported earlier this month:

The UK government has granted pharmaceutical giant Pfizer a legal indemnity protecting it from…legal action as a result of any problems with the [COVID-19] vaccine. Ministers have also changed the law in recent weeks to give new protections to companies such as Pfizer…

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was authorised…under regulation 174 of the Human Medicine Regulations 2012 which allows an unlicensed medication to be used in an emergency such as a pandemic. [bold added]

There may be sound reasons why governments need to shield pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits in some situations. But recent history tells us that, should one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines be linked to serious harms, the public won’t necessarily be informed in a timely fashion.

As I’ve discussed previously, a small number of people who received Pandemrix, one of the H1N1 vaccines, later developed narcolepsy – an incurable, life-altering disease. The connection was first noticed in Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, where vaccination rates tend to be high.

In Finland, children aged 16 and under were diagnosed with narcolepsy 17 times as often in 2010 as had been the case between 2002 and 2009. Most of those stricken developed symptoms serious enough to impair their daily lives within a few months of receiving Pandemrix.

Even after this link became apparent, documenting it within the medical literature wasn’t easy. Hanna Nohynek, who conducted some of the early Finnish research, told a journalist in 2015:

We went to the New England Journal of Medicine. They did not want to take the paper. The Lancet rejected it. The [British Medical Journal] rejected it.

In the UK, Elizabeth Miller and her co-authors similarly discovered that children who’d received Pandemrix had a “significantly increased risk of narcolepsy.” After they managed to persuade the British Medical Journal to publish their findings, they encountered a media blackout. Journalists chose to bury the story.

Five years ago, under the headline How anti-vaxxers have scared the media away from covering vaccine side effects, Vox journalist Julia Belluz began an article this way:

“It was the most startling side effect I’ve ever come across.” That’s how Elizabeth Miller, head of the immunization department at Public Health England, described some recent vaccine research you’ve probably never heard about: Pandemrix, a shot designed to stave off swine flu, also appears to be causing narcolepsy in some children.

Public health officials – especially ones that work in the politically fraught field of vaccine safety – don’t typically make emotive statements like that.

Then Miller told me about something that shocked her even more: The media didn’t pick up on this story at all. In fact, she characterized the reception to her 2013 research about vaccines and narcolepsy as “radio silence.”

Strange, isn’t it? We trust ordinary people to come to the right conclusion while sitting on a jury, deciding the fate of someone accused of murder. Yet many journalists treat us like infants, incapable of evaluating competing claims where our own health is concerned.

Kind of reminds you of those big tech companies who, rather than encouraging a marketplace of ideas, arrogantly imagine themselves to be arbiters of the truth.


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  • last week, the website of a Vancouver radio station published an article titled, Trudeau government silent on drug manufacturer liability for COVID-19 vaccines. It reads, in part: “As Canada prepares for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government is refusing to say if drug manufacturers can face legal liability if there are any adverse effects from their shots…It’s standard in many countries to offer some legal exemptions to drug manufacturers when a government procures vaccines in an emergency. In a statement however, Health Canada says it can’t release details of its contracts due to confidentiality clauses” [bold added by me; screen capture of the news story is here].
  • Lintern’s important article, Coronavirus vaccine: Pfizer given protection from legal action by UK government (backed up here)
  • in 2018, the British Medical Journal published a feature, written by associate editor Peter Doshi, titled Pandemrix vaccine: why was the public not told of early warning signs? It alleges that while data collection systems exist to track adverse vaccine reactions, this data isn’t necessarily noticed or acted upon.
  • Der Spiegel‘s story, Reconstruction of a Mass Hysteria: The Swine Flu Panic of 2009, argues the World Health Organization’s declaration of an H1N1 pandemic was influenced by pharmaceutical companies who had a conflict-of-interest.
  • two 2013 research papers documenting post-vaccination childhood narcolepsy in Finland are here and here
  • research published by Elizabeth Miller’s team in 2013 is here. Follow-up research, published in September 2020 is here. On page 3 of the latter, the researchers say there’s “strong confirmatory evidence of a casual association” between Pendemrix and childhood narcolepsy. On page 11, they conclude there’s no evidence the vaccine triggered narcolepsy that would have manifested in these children at a later date, anyway. Significantly, the researchers revised the UK numbers downward: “The 8-fold increased risk…was lower than that in our earlier study in which a 16-fold increased risk was found…”



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This entry was posted on December 14, 2020 by in health, media and tagged , , .
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