Immunizing the drug-makers

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Monday, December 19, 2005

The House ostensibly took steps early Monday to protect Americans from a bird flu epidemic, but the people who were really being protected are the vaccine-makers. And unless the Senate rejects the House action, which it is expected to consider later this week, Congress will have given big business an immunization - against civil lawsuits by patients injured by flu vaccines.
That's both wrong and unnecessary.
As one of the riders on the defense appropriations bill, the House Monday granted sweeping legal immunity to companies that produce vaccines in response to a potentially deadly flu pandemic. Those pushing for such immunity, including President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), say the protection is needed to convince vaccine-makers to start making influenza vaccine, especially with the looming threat of bird flu.
While it's reasonable to have some liability protections in place for drug companies against frivolous lawsuits, consumer advocates, including the Center for Justice and Democracy, argue convincingly that this legal shield, which would get triggered by a declaration of emergency from the secretary of health and human services, amounts to blanket immunity. Injured parties would have to prove that the companies engaged in "willful" misconduct or neglect - an exceedingly difficult task.
 The measure would have even more ominous implications for consumers because the protections could be extended not just to vaccines but to other products, even over-the-counter medications, in an epidemic.
 In short, this is bad medicine. And when it gets its chance, the Senate should spit it out.

For a copy of the complete article, contact CJ&D

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