Serious Vaccine Side Effects Are Rare. Compensation for Those Injuries Shouldn’t Be.
As we see Covid-19 cases and deaths rising, many states, cities, and now the federal government are reaching for vaccine mandates. Even where the political climate is unfriendly to mandates, governments are, rightly, trying to increase Covid-19 vaccines rates.
Covid-19 vaccines are extremely effective, and very safe. They are an essential part of controlling the pandemic. But the other side of their use is that the extremely rare cases of severe harms from the vaccines deserve to be fully, quickly, and generously compensated. A nation that demands vaccination owes that to anyone who is harmed. It’s the right thing, and it’s good policy.
Covid-19 vaccines are currently covered by a declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act that protects manufacturers of any Covid-19 related products from liability, with very narrow exceptions. The liability protections are there for a reason: During an emergency, we want products on the market fast, and liability protections can allow companies to move forward on products faster than they could otherwise.
Vaccine safety review normally involves multiple rounds of increasingly large trials that monitor patients for months to ensure there are no unexpected side effects. Vaccine trials enroll more subjects than drug studies and seek diversity of subjects. This takes time, during which there is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Vaccines are held to that high bar because they are given to many healthy people, and it is a particular ethical problem to make a healthy person sick.
But in the midst of an outbreak or pandemic, there is good reason to move faster. Many people who are healthy now are likely to become sick in the absence of vaccine. In an emergency, the risk-benefit calculation may be different than in usual times: Waiting can carry heavy risks. At its peak, Covid killed thousands of people each day in the United States. Where normally regulators would consider a 1:10,000 risk of severe harm in vaccines unacceptable, when thousands are dying each day, we may not be willing to wait to be sure there is no such risk.
But the other side of protecting manufacturers from liability should be providing compensation to those harmed. For vaccines, that’s even more crucial. Vaccines fill two purposes: They protect the individual directly, and they also protect the public by reducing transmission of a virus (or bacteria) and reducing disease for the entire community. People who take the vaccine are contributing to public health (while also benefiting themselves). The people who suffer very rare cases of injury should not be left to bear the costs alone for a public good.