Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) petition for a grand jury investigation into COVID-19 vaccines, in which he decries the ongoing vaccine campaign as “propaganda” by the Biden administration, is drawing fierce criticism from health experts.
Physicians and public health experts say his request betrays decades of established procedure designed to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and only serves to stoke further immunization fears.
DeSantis’s petition for a grand jury investigation was approved by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday, clearing the way for what his office described as a probe into “wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The request was first made known during a roundtable discussion the Florida governor held last week, in which he condemned what he viewed as the linking of morality to pandemic mitigation methods such as staying at home in the early parts of the outbreak and getting vaccinated once the shots became available later on, and criticized federal COVID-19 guidance as being a “huge political farce.”
In his petition, DeSantis expressed suspicion over the COVID-19 vaccines’ ability to prevent transmission of the virus, as well as public statements made on the subject by officials like President Biden and outgoing chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci. As has been previously stated by physicians and researchers, no vaccine is 100 percent effective, but studies have consistently shown the coronavirus vaccines offer strong enough protection for recipients to prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death.
“It is impossible to imagine that so many influential individuals came to this view on their own. Rather, it is likely that individuals and companies with an incentive to do so created these perceptions for financial gain,” DeSantis suggested in his petition.
Public health experts and physicians, however, said DeSantis’s approach to scrutinizing the vaccines was flawed and counterproductive to promoting public health.
Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of public health group the de Beaumont Foundation, said DeSantis “appears to be focused on creating fear around vaccines that have been shown to be safe and effective,” rather than protecting the lives of Floridians.
“These vaccines have been tested and scrutinized more than any other vaccine, and they continue to save lives. Vaccine safety is not a partisan issue and attempting to make it one puts lives at risk,” Castrucci added.
Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at Johns Hopkins University and former principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in a statement to The Hill that while there are legitimate avenues for evaluating vaccine recommendations, DeSantis’s investigation request was not an example of one.
“This is turning a matter of health and science into a political wedge issue, with the likely consequence that many people will be misled into placing themselves and their families at risk of serious illness and death,” Sharfstein said.
Other public health experts similarly disagreed with the avenue the governor has chosen for reviewing the COVID-19 vaccine guidance.
“His understanding of the facts or at least his articulation of the facts are just wrong,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told The Hill. Commenting shortly before the court’s decision, Benjamin said he hoped the petition was denied, as he considered such an investigation “a waste of taxpayer money and time and effort.”
“No one has either inappropriately or purposely either overstated or understated the vaccine in any way,” said Benjamin. “It’s a brand-new technology. Like any brand-new technology, you make some assumptions about what you think’s going to happen. It actually turned out to be a whole lot better than most people thought it would be.”
William Schaffner, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University’s department of health policy and its division of infectious diseases, said he was “baffled” by DeSantis’s assertion that influential public health officials could not have come to same conclusion when it came to the vaccines.
As Schaffner noted, there are two independent panels composed of voluntary, external experts who advise federal agencies on vaccine policy. These committees are the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee at the FDA and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for which Schaffner is an ex-officio member, usually a nonvoting position within the group.
“That committee has been working for more than 60 years, and it deals with all vaccines. And it establishes the standards of practice as to who ought to receive the vaccines,” Schaffner said of the ACIP, noting committee meetings are entirely open to the public. “So, this is a rigorous, externally vetted, very critical process and it’s transparent … it is a model of open regulatory and recommending processes.”
In addition to expressing suspicion over the vaccine’s ability to prevent transmission, DeSantis further asserted that the risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, could possibly outweigh the benefits conferred by immunization.
Myocarditis is a rare side effect of mRNA vaccination that has been observed to be more common among young male patients. Both the ACIP and the CDC have previously determined that the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis, an inflammation of the muscles surrounding the heart, is outweighed by the benefits of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
Both Benjamin and Schaffner pushed back against DeSantis’s suggestion, stating that the risk of myocarditis was in fact higher in COVID-19 infections than in coronavirus immunizations. Schaffner referred to myocarditis following vaccination as a “transient phenomenon” from which the vast majority of patients fully recovered, which has also been observed by the CDC in surveys.
“I’ve worked for governors and mayors and there’s clearly a role for elected officials to provide the appropriate moral leadership in our communities and governance leadership,” Benjamin said. “But I think that they get in trouble when they try to practice medicine.”
“They’re smart and, you know, they can certainly give an appropriate message. But the message is not as credible when they get into the weeds and start arguing really technical details without having the background and training,” he said.
When reached for a response to some of the criticisms relayed to The Hill, DeSantis’s office referred back the roundtable discussion the governor held.