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Pandemrix vaccine: why was the public not told of early warning signs?

BMJ 2018; 362 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k3948 (Published 20 September 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;362:k3948
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Adverse events: GSK pandemic influenza vaccines

  1. Peter Doshi, associate editor, The BMJ
  1. pdoshi{at}bmj.com

Eight years after the pandemic influenza outbreak, a lawsuit alleging that GlaxoSmithKline’s Pandemrix vaccine caused narcolepsy has unearthed internal reports suggesting problems with the vaccine’s safety. Peter Doshi asks what this means for the future of transparency during public health emergencies

In October 2009, the US National Institutes of Health infectious diseases chief, Anthony Fauci, appeared on YouTube to reassure Americans about the safety of the “swine flu” vaccine. “The track record for serious adverse events is very good. It’s very, very, very rare that you ever see anything that’s associated with the vaccine that’s a serious event,”1 he said.

Four months earlier, the World Health Organization had declared H1N1 influenza a pandemic, and by October 2009 the new vaccines were being rolled out across the world. A similar story was playing out in the UK, with prominent organisations, including the Department of Health, British Medical Association, and Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, working hard to convince a reluctant NHS workforce to get vaccinated.2 “We fully support the swine flu vaccination programme … The vaccine has been thoroughly tested,” they declared in a joint statement.3

Except, it hadn’t. Anticipating a severe influenza pandemic, governments around the world had made various logistical and legal arrangements to shorten the time between recognition of a pandemic virus and the production of a vaccine and administration of that vaccine in the population. In Europe, one element of those plans was an agreement to grant licences to pandemic vaccines based on data from pre-pandemic “mock-up” vaccines produced using a different virus (H5N1 influenza). Another element, adopted by countries such as Canada, the US, UK, France, and Germany, was to provide vaccine manufacturers indemnity from liability for wrongdoing, thereby reducing the risk of a lawsuit stemming from vaccine related injury.45

In …

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