Introducing a no-fault vaccine injury compensation scheme could be said to both encourage and damage public confidence in vaccines, according to an overview of such measures produced by the Oireachtas earlier this year.
The overview, produced by two Oireachtas researchers, outlined the arguments in favour and against the introduction of compensation schemes, while pointing out that they already exist in most developed countries.
The question of introducing such a scheme has been discussed for years but has additional importance in the context of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, under which 80 per cent of the population aged over 16 have already received first dose vaccinations.
Work to “advance policy development” is currently under way, the Department of Health said, when asked when a scheme might be introduced.
Vaccine injury compensation schemes (Vics) are no-fault schemes designed to prevent those who suffer injury from vaccination programmes from having to prove negligence and causation in the courts.
Among the advantages of such schemes is that they mitigate against countries not being able to get access to vaccines from manufacturers who might be otherwise wary of the financial consequences of supplying them.
The Oireachtas paper points out that lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits were affecting the price and supply of vaccines, as well as vaccine research, in the US, until it introduced an injury compensation scheme in 1988.
The arguments in favour of Vics include their recognition of the ethical responsibilies of government, the protection of vaccine manufacturers, ensuring vaccine supply, and the encouragement of public confidence, according to the overview.
The arguments against include damage to public confidence, the cost of Vics to the public purse, the fact that causality between a vaccine and injury is too difficult to establish in a conclusive manner, and that Vics provide manfacturers with impunity when their products do harm.
With the Covid-19 vaccines, the Government has provided the manufacturers with an indemnity against any claims for damages, something that other governments have also done so as to ensure supply.
The report of an expert group chaired by High Court judge, Mr Justice Charles Meenan, in January 2020 recommended that a compensation scheme be established “as a matter of urgency” and that manufacturers be asked to contribute to the cost of the scheme.
Some 100 people took High Court actions seeking damages arising from narcolepsy they said was triggered by the administration of the Pandemrix vaccine, which was delivered during the swine flu pandemic of 2009 and 2010.
The manufacturer, Glaxosmithkline Biologicals SA, had been indemnified by the government.
The cases are now being settled on a no-fault basis as part of a mediated process that will see the plaintiffs getting half of the claim that was before the court.
The fact that only half of each claim is being awarded is indicative, according to sources, of the difficulty for the plaintiffs of making their case successfully in court.
The monetary awards handed out by the Vics that exist in other countries tend to be substantially less than the type of monetary awards that are arising from the Irish swine flu cases.
However, the picture is complicated by the fact that in the main the money is to pay for future healthcare needs of the plaintiffs, needs which are often supplied directly by the State in other jurisdictions.
Vaccines are generally very safe and severe adverse effects from vaccines are very rare. Widespread immunisation saves millions of lives globally every year and, in the case of Covid-19, allows society to operate in ways that would otherwise lead to massive death and injury.