At the end of December 2020, Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine received ‘Emergency Use Listing’ by The World Health Organization (WHO). This opened the door for countries to expedite the import and administration of the vaccine. However, many people believe that the vaccine has been rushed, and are concerned about the effect it may have upon vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. This lack of trust in a vaccine program, which is vital to public health systems, has resulted in anti-vaccine protests being held across the country. But should Australian’s really be worried with so much information backing up the benefits of vaccines, and with our Prime Minister stating that Australian experts have found the vaccine to be “safe, effective, and of a high standard”?
Even with a multitude of science-based evidence surrounding the safety of vaccines, some people are clearly still worried. An organisation called the Australian Vaccination-risks Network Inc. (AVN) was started in 1994 by a group of parents and health professionals who were concerned about the lack of scientifically-based information on the ‘other side’ of the vaccination issue. Although the AVN state their position is not anti-vaccination, nor pro-vaccination, but pro-choice, they have received a multitude of threats and abuse, and groups have even been set up with the stated aim of shutting them down.
Professor Brian Martin, emeritus professor at the University of Wollongong, Australia, reveals that when dissenters are supressed there may be significant consequences. In his 2015 study ‘On the suppression of vaccination dissent’, Professor Martin argues how dissenters from the dominant views about vaccination sometimes are subject to adverse actions, including abusive comments, threats, formal complaints, censorship, and deregistration, a phenomenon that can be called suppression of dissent. The study further reveals how such a pattern can result in a reluctance of researchers to undertake studies in particular fields and governments and corporations not wanting to fund studies, which can create gaps in knowledge leading to a highly polarized public discourse.
In her 2015 thesis, “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”, Judy Wilyman reveals, “In the era of globalisation research is being driven primarily for profit and not just for its contribution to knowledge. She argues that public health decisions should be determined independently of vaccine manufacturers, and warns that “Public health is put at risk if community education campaigns can be influenced by corporations that profit from the products they are promoting.
With global vaccine market revenues jumping from around 30 billion to around 60 billion US dollars within 6 years, and economic agendas being prioritised within many nations, the way public health decisions are made may require further consideration. As Ms Wilyman adds in her thesis, “The corporate model of health that was adopted by the states and territories in the 1990’s allows corporations to fund health promotion programs, such as vaccination, to the public in media campaigns.”
Governmental prioritisation of the economy and GDP over public health is something to also consider. According to cybersecurity researchers for IBM Security X-Force, rather than a rogue monetary driven criminal operation, the 2020 cyberattacks that targeted the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain point to a government-sponsored initiative from an unknown country.
These are perhaps some of the reasons why, according to a multitude of peer reviewed academic research articles, parents who are vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-refusing generally lack trust in governments, health professionals, and pharmaceutical companies. As previously stated, trust in vaccine programs is vital to public health systems. But how can this be achieved with a lack of trust in the government itself?
A quick Google search of “Are vaccines safe in Australia?” results in a number of government departments, education and research centres, and independent organisations concluding that the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. However, upon closer inspection of the “independent” organisations listed throughout multiple pages of the Google search, most, if not all are funded by the Australian Government.
In 2020 a petition was signed by 13711 people requesting the Parliament of Australia to fund unbiased research studies to affirm the safety of the current child vaccine schedule. This was sought partially on the basis that chronic illness in Australian children has increased simultaneously to the ever-increasing 72 dose vaccine schedule, and that there is a lack of safety studies in relation to the combined dosing of multiple vaccines with varying ingredients from numerous manufacturers.
Greg Hunt, Australia’s Minister for Health, responded to the petition by stating, “The Government already has in place, an Advisory Committee on Vaccines (ACV) that provides independent medical and scientific advice to myself, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) on issues relating to the safety, quality and efficacy of vaccines supplied in Australia.” Although the ACV members include professionals with expertise in specific scientific, medical or clinical fields, or in consumer health issues, nearly all have links to organisations and institutions that have either received direct or indirectly funding from the Australian Government. Although this potentially creates a question about what constitutes “independent” advice, the doubting of vaccination and public health systems as a whole can lead to dangerous consequences.
In 2020 The World Health Organisations (WHO) released information about vaccine myths and misconceptions. They revealed, after a decline in immunisation levels a number of developed countries faced the immediate effects of increased disease outbreaks and pandemics. The WHO wrote, “you must always look at both risks and benefits… While any serious injury or death caused by vaccines is too many, it is also clear that the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the slight risk, and that many, many more injuries and deaths would occur without vaccinations.”As previously mentioned, vaccine hesitancy and/or refusal can be influenced by distrust in governments. This distrust however, is unlikely to disappear until the opportunity to buy influence is stamped out. Pfizer, the manufacturer of Australia’s recently rolled out Comirnaty vaccine, have made numerous donations to both the Australian Liberal and Labor political parties. With clear links to data on the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) Transparency Register, ‘Democracy for Sale’ reveals donations by Pfizer have totalled over $133,000 since 2016, even without donations under approximately $14,000 requiring disclosure.
According to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Corruption (UNDOC) Covid-19 Response, “corruption risks must be identified and mitigated by public institutions to help advance access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines by the population, including the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.” With some of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in Australia being the first to gain access to the Covid vaccine, with no guarantee that it will prove successful, some may wonder why such groups as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the elderly are finally being placed as a priority.
According to a 2020 article “COVID‑19 vaccines – are we there yet?” progress through all trial stages usually takes at least 10 years. Although the compression of trial phases is said to have not compromised scientific rigour, all potential Covid vaccines are still in a safety monitoring stage. Although the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decided in January 2021 that Comirnaty had met the high safety, efficacy and quality standards required for use in Australia, it was only provisionally approved, meaning Pfizer must continue providing information to the TGA on longer term efficacy and safety from ongoing clinical trials.
Professor Brian Martin says, “For an Australian who is not in a high-risk category, it might be considered sensible to postpone taking a Covid-19 vaccine until more is learned about side effects and transmissibility. In Australia there are so few Covid-19 cases that the urgency for being vaccinated is less than in other countries.”
Simply suppressing dissenters for their concerns about public health safety is unlikely to result in more people trusting vaccine programs. Increased trust in the public health system overall may instead be the answer. What seems to be required, however, is an expansion of unbiased research and knowledge, and a clear separation of corporations and governments involving the conclusion of political donations.
Should vaccine safety be questioned? Or should we question the lack of open discussion about why people have concerns?