Back in October of 2018, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC, and listen to Paul Offit, MD*, talk about his latest book. Unfortunately, the session barely touched on his book. Instead, the session turned into a series of shouts and accusations from some members of the audience. As it turns out, a television producer who heads an anti-vaccine organization had taken a number of people to the presentation to “ask questions” of Dr. Offit, most of which centered around the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. (Vaccines do not cause autism.) The television producer, who is not a physician and not a scientist, loudly interrupted Dr. Offit on several occasions, so much so that one of the moderators threatened to have him removed from the room if he caused another outburst.
That was not my first encounter with that television producer, nor would it be my last. But this blog post is not about my personal history with him or any other anti-vaccine person or organization. Instead, I’d like to simply point you to yet another development in the current COVID-19 pandemic. As more state and local governments lift public health mandates on occupancy and wearing of masks, more organizations — like private businesses or public schools — are requiring their employees or students to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID. As you might imagine based on the history of anti-vaccine movements, anti-vaccine organizations are now investing time and money in countering those mandates.
“Attorneys from Siri & Glimstad — a New York firm that has done millions of dollars of legal work for one of the nation’s foremost anti-vaccination groups — are co-counsel in a case against the Durham County Sheriff’s Office. They’ve sent warning letters to officials in Rock County, Wis., as well as to the president of Rutgers University and other schools.Resistance to vaccine mandates is building. A powerful network is helping., The Washington Post, May 26, 2021.
The legal salvos show that a groundswell against compulsory immunization is being coordinated, at least in part, from a law office on Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan. And they offer a window into a wide-ranging and well-resourced effort to contest vaccine requirements in workplaces and other settings critical to the country’s reopening — a dispute with sweeping implications for public health, state authority and individual rights.
The Informed Consent Action Network, a Texas-based nonprofit group founded by former daytime television producer Del Bigtree that campaigns against vaccine requirements, in part by citing unsubstantiated or debunked claims about their dangers, has advertised Siri & Glimstad’s services and sought plaintiffs for challenges to mandates.
“If you or anyone you know is being required by an employer or school to receive a covid-19 vaccine, ICAN is offering to support legal action on your behalf to challenge the requirement,” reads an advertisement on a blog run by Children’s Health Defense, a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that spreads what Kennedy’s family members say is anti-vaccine misinformation.
Even before the pandemic, legal services were core to these advocacy efforts. The nearly $1.3 million paid by ICAN to Siri & Glimstad in 2019 — the most recent year for which a tax filing is publicly available — was the nonprofit’s single largest reported expenditure…
In legal filings and letters to employers and universities, attorneys from Siri & Glimstad focus on the expedited process known as an emergency use authorization used to clear the shots during a public health emergency. Mandating a vaccine cleared that way, they argue in a complaint filed against the Durham County Sheriff’s Department, is “illegal and unenforceable.”
Their arguments go further. Pointing to the principle of informed consent, a tenet of medical ethics addressing human experimentation enshrined in the Nuremberg Code after World War II, their letter to the president of Rutgers University contends a mandate under these circumstances violates not just federal law, but also “international laws, civil and individual rights, and public policy.” Failure to rescind a requirement in Rock County, Wis., the firm informed officials there, “will result in legal action being filed against you.”
“Govern yourself accordingly,” the Feb. 2 letter advised.
This is certainly not the first or last time that anti-vaccine groups will use the courts to fight against vaccines, in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Legal scholars are weighing in on the arguments made for and against vaccination against COVID-19 given that the currently authorized vaccines are authorized under an Emergency Use Authorization. Ethically speaking, it is acceptable to require an individual to take on the infinitesimally small risk of getting the vaccine to avoid the much bigger risk of being infected with the novel coronavirus and contributing to an epidemic. But there is a significant difference between what is legal and what is ethical (and what is moral).
*Note: Dr. Paul Offit is a member of our Editorial Advisory Board. He had no input whatsoever on the material in this blog post.