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DeSantis' power move on COVID vaccines targets drugmakers, possibly Trump legacy

Grand jury can compel revelations that could affect legal immunity of drugmakers, 2024 presidential race.

Published: December 13, 2022 7:19pm

Updated: December 13, 2022 11:12pm

As he has done many times before, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is flexing his state muscle to address an issue where many see federal failure, empaneling a state grand jury to investigate whether drugmakers and federal agencies hid potential risks or problems posed by the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.

His power move, announced Tuesday, may reshape the debate over whether federal science agencies and drugmakers can share legal blame for any harms the vaccines are believed to have caused. It also opens a political avenue to attack Donald Trump's administration for its Warp Speed program to approve the vaccines on an accelerated timetable.

The latter could impact the 2024 race should DeSantis challenge Trump in the GOP presidential primaries, loaded with conservative voters long aligned with Trump who also harbor distrust of the federal government's approval process for the vaccines and big Pharma’s profit motives in the aftermath of the opioid epidemic.

"I think people want the truth that I think people want accountability," DeSantis said Tuesday in explaining his decision to ask the Florida Supreme Court to empanel the grand jury. "You need to have a thorough investigation into what's happened with the shots."

Normally, vaccine safety is an issue left to federal regulators, like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But DeSantis is injecting himself into the debate, declaring alongside his surgeon general Joseph Ladapo on Tuesday that state law prohibits drugmakers from making false or misleading statements about drug or vaccine safety.

In the filing to the state Supreme Court, his administration played to populist distrust of drug companies as well as casting doubt on the vaccines, which federal officials belatedly admit don't stop either transmission or infection but simply lessen severe symptoms for many.

The "pharmaceutical industry has a notorious history of misleading the public for financial gain," and the grand jury will probe "the development, promotion, and distribution of vaccines purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms, and transmission," the filing declared.

You can read that filing here:

Vaccine makers like Pfizer immediately pushed back.

"These authorizations are based on robust and independent evaluation of the scientific data on quality, safety and efficacy, including our landmark phase 3 clinical trial," Pfizer spokeswoman Sharon J. Castillo wrote Politico. "Data from real world studies complement the clinical trial data and provide additional evidence that the vaccine provides effective protection against severe disease."

One issue officials said Florida is likely to investigate is whether federal agencies or drugmakers withheld data affecting Americans' ability to judge the safety or efficacy of the inoculations.

On that front, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch released documents Tuesday it said showed that data Moderna submitted to the FDA reported a "statistically significant" number of rats were born with skeletal deformations after their mothers were injected with the vaccine. The documents also reveal Moderna elected not to conduct a number of standard pharmacological studies on the laboratory test animals, the group said.

"The vaccine companies are saying well, no big whoop, you know, that's not necessarily tied to the vaccines," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told the "Just the News, No Noise" television show. "Others would suggest otherwise, that this is a warning sign about the safety of the vaccines. The point is this debate should have been had last year, when we first asked for this material, rather than it taking 18 months and a federal lawsuit to get this basic information out about the vaccinations."

You can read those documents here:

Fitton said the DeSantis grand jury opens up a whole new, untested area for a state to challenge federal authorities on vaccine safety.

"This is the most important medical treatment, arguably in the history of modern man, these vaccines, and we're just finding out basic information about how they were tested and what the results were," he said.

"It's going to be a big legal question as to whether these companies or anyone else has liability over the misleading information that we've too often never received related to these, what Justice Alito famously called 'irreversible medical treatments,'" he added. "And did federal law preempt Ron DeSantis, or Florida State officials' ability to enforce consumer fraud and other statutes in a way that protects citizens there? That's going to be interesting to see how that turns out."

While the legal front evolves, there are significant political considerations to the DeSantis strategy should the Florida governor enter the 2024 presidential race as some expect. Trump, already declared for 2024, has touted his record of developing the vaccines in record time through a public-private partnership with the drugmakers.

DeSantis, who famously fought federal vaccine mandates on the grounds that people should have the freedom to choose what to inject into their bodies, could dent the Trump vaccine legacy if he can show safety was put at risk in the name of that warp speed.

That equation, however, won't be known until the grand jury gets the evidence and makes assessments as to whether the state's consumer laws were violated and whether citizens were deprived of the right to make informed decisions.

No matter how that turns out, DeSantis' move is already winning conservative converts, including in Trumpworld.

DeSantis "going after Big Pharma over the COVID shots is the feel-good story of the day," tweeted Monica Crowley, an influential conservative columnist, TV analyst and podcaster who served in the Trump administration as an assistant Treasury secretary.

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