The Nuremberg Code Does Not Apply to Licensed, Approved, and Authorized Vaccinations, Only to the Research That Led to That Licensure, Approval, and Authorization

Recently, an anti-vaccine activist walked into a department store in Missouri and announced to the pharmacy staff that they could be “executed” for violating the Nuremberg Code. Here is how the Washington Post tells the story:

“An Alabama-based anti-vaxxer who has gained a following online — where he spreads false information about the coronavirus pandemic, Key was on a mission to give the pharmacists inoculating shoppers a warning.

“What they’re doing is crimes against humanity,” he said in a live stream on Facebook. “And if they do not stand down immediately, then they could be executed. They can be hung in the state.”

Key, who did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment early Thursday, was invited to Springfield for an anti-vaccine rally this past Saturday, according to the Springfield News-Leader, which first reported the Walmart incident. Videos on Key’s Facebook page show he also spoke at a Springfield Public Schools board meeting and made the rounds to other pharmacies, where he bombarded workers with similar false rhetoric.



Wearing a polo with “Vaccine Police” written across the left side of his chest, Key ran through the game plan with the group. During a prayer in the parking lot, Key said he hoped to “put the fear of God in these pharmacists.”

The live stream shows Key walking past the produce section and then along the grocery aisles. As he made his way to the pharmacy counter, workers there can be seen shutting down the counter and locking the door.

“Wow! They’re going to close down the pharmacy,” Key said.

Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

Key went on to claim that the pharmacists were violating the Nuremberg Code, a set of medical ethics rules established after World War II that led to the prosecution and execution of several Nazi doctors who carried out medical experiments on victims in concentration camps. Key’s comparisons are inaccurate, experts say, because the coronavirus vaccine is not experimental.

“If you allow one more shot in one more person’s body, you yourself will be executed in violation of the Nuremberg Code,” he said as he pointed to a Walmart employee standing nearby. “We don’t want that to happen to any of you guys at all. We love you guys. We want to keep you safe.””

Self-proclaimed ‘Vaccine Police’ tells Walmart pharmacists they ‘could be executed’ for administering shots” THE WASHINGTON POST, August 19, 2021

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nuremberg Code is a set of ten principles laid out during the prosecution of war crimes committed by medical professionals on prisoners of the Nazi regime:

“Several German doctors had argued in their own defense that their experiments differed little from those conducted before the war by German and American scientists. Furthermore they showed that no international law or informal statement differentiated between legal and illegal human experimentation. This argument was a great concern to two US doctors who had worked with the prosecution during the trial, Dr. Andrew Ivy and Dr. Leo Alexander.

As a result, on April 17, 1947, Dr. Alexander submitted a memorandum to the United States Counsel for War Crimes. The memo outlined six points that defined legitimate medical research. The trial’s verdict of August 19 reiterated almost all of these points in a section entitled “Permissible Medical Experiments.” It also revised the original six points into ten, and these ten points became known as the “Nuremberg Code.”

In the half century following the trial, the code informed numerous international ethics statements. Its legal force, however, was not well established. Nevertheless, it remains a landmark document on medical ethics and one of the most lasting products of the “Doctors Trial.””

“The Nuremberg Code” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The ten points of the Code boil down to full informed consent, benevolence, and justice. For research to be ethical, the research subjects must be completely informed of the risks and benefits of participating in the research. They must then give their full consent without coercion. If the subjects are underage minors, their legal guardians must be the ones fully informed and giving consent. However, even minors must give assent, which is to be agreeable with participating.

Benevolence is all about the research being for the good of those who are participants/subjects, for their communities, and for humanity. You can’t do research just for the sake of research or to find out what happens if you do this or that to a person. Research on humans is serious stuff, and it must be taken seriously and with the intent of helping others.

Finally, justice is all about the fruits of the research benefiting everyone — including the participants/subjects — equally. If you do research on a group of people to find out if a drug can help them, and it ends up helping them, then you must continue to give them that drug instead of just stopping the research and moving on to selling the drug. Or, if you find out that an intervention for a public health problem works on a group of people, then their community must have access to that intervention as well and benefit equitably from the findings of the research.

With this in mind, do the COVID-19 vaccine distribution programs violate the principles of the Nuremberg Code? Of course not. The research done into the vaccines were done in accordance to laws and regulations on human subjects research. Those laws did evolve from the Nuremberg Code, but they are not the Nuremberg Code. Also, while the overarching law in the United States is a federal one, some of the states have their own additional laws concerning research on human subjects. (For example, here is Maryland’s and here is California’s.) Violation of those laws in the United States do not carry the death sentence, though it is possible that other crimes that do — e.g. murder — may be committed along with violation of human subject research laws.

Not only were the clinical trials done in compliance with US laws, but the “experiment” ended there. The current Emergency Use Authorization of the three vaccines against COVID-19 are not an experiment. There is no control group, unless those who are refusing to get vaccinated deem themselves the control group. (In that case, they may exit being in the control group at any time by getting the vaccine.) Yet there is full informed consent of those taking the vaccine, and the benefits of the vaccine go well beyond those getting it by reducing the burden of the disease at a community level.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen