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Commentary

Lawsuits Won’t Stop Pandemics
Paul A. Offit, Wall Street Journal, 12-1-05

Offit, echoing the findings of the Manhattan Institute’s recent publication Trial Lawyer’s Inc.: Health Care, argues that lawsuits have not made a single vaccine safer. On the contrary, they have practically exterminated the U.S. vaccine industry, and driven up the cost of the remaining products.

In 1955, five companies stepped forward to make Jonas Salk's new formaldehyde-inactivated polio vaccine. One company -- Cutter Laboratories of Berkeley, Calif. -- made it badly. Because of Cutter's failure to completely inactivate the virus in their vaccine, 120,000 children were inadvertently injected with live, dangerous poliovirus; 40,000 developed mild polio, 200 were permanently paralyzed and 10 were killed. It was one of the worst biological disasters in American history.
Given all of these problems, what role did personal-injury lawyers play in pushing vaccine makers to make better, safer products? The answer: none. That's because the tragedies caused by vaccines weren't the result of foul play, cost-cutting, deceit or misrepresentation. Every problem was caused by the inevitable, painful, intolerable but requisite process of knowledge gained with time that is required for advances in science and medicine. Scientists eventually found a way to grow rabies virus in safer cells. The Cutter tragedy -- later found to be caused by a filtration problem shared by all five companies making polio vaccines -- was quickly identified and corrected. And when researchers later discovered hepatitis B virus -- the virus that had in retrospect contaminated the yellow fever vaccine -- they made a vaccine to prevent it.
Like it or not, we learn as we go. And no amount of suing is ever going to change that.

Offit suggests—wisely, we think—more liability protections for vaccine manufacturers, primarily through the expansion of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund. This won’t come to pass, however, if trial lawyers and their allies in Congress have anything to say about it.



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