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People Harmed by Coronavirus Vaccines Will Have Little Recourse

The U.S. government paid out $4.4 billion over more than 30 years covering injuries relating to a host of vaccines—from flu to polio—but payouts for potential injuries from Covid-19 vaccines will be covered by a far less-generous program.

Covid-19 vaccine injuries will be covered under a program known as the “countermeasures injury” compensation fund, which was set up in 2010 to cover harm resulting from vaccines for a flu pandemic, or drugs to treat an anthrax or Ebola outbreak, for example.

This year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said the countermeasures fund should also cover injuries from Covid-19 vaccines, giving drug companies immunity from potential liability lawsuits.

But the fund isn’t expected to offer much of a remedy to the public, according to lawyers and vaccine experts. Since it began processing claims, the fund has paid out $6 million on 29 claims, averaging $207,000 per person, compared with $585,000 on average per person for an older vaccine injury fund.

Behind the gap: The new fund has a tougher threshold for proving a relationship between an injury and the vaccine, experts say. The newer fund has a shorter statute of limitations, no avenue for appeals and doesn’t pay damages for pain or suffering like the older vaccine program does.

“The recourse for the people that get it initially is not going to be great” if they are harmed by any Covid-19 vaccines, said Renée Gentry, director of the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic at George Washington University Law School. “The countermeasures compensation program is effectively a right to file and lose.”

Several companies, including

Pfizer Inc.

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Moderna Inc.,

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are testing whether experimental vaccines safely protect people from Covid-19 in late-stage clinical trials. Initial results could be available in the coming weeks, and if they are positive the U.S. government could authorize emergency use of the shots.

Vaccines generally are safe, but they can cause side effects—called “adverse events” in studies—including shoulder injuries related to injections, allergic reactions, fainting and certain neurological conditions like encephalitis. Some of the side effects are rare, and public-health officials say the benefits of vaccines in preventing diseases like polio, measles and rotavirus outweigh the risks.

Some people receiving experimental Covid-19 vaccines have experienced fatigue, chills and injection-site pain, studies show. Drug companies have said most of the events are mild or moderate, and that the vaccines were generally well tolerated.

Yet some of the symptoms have been pronounced. In a small study of Moderna’s vaccine in healthy volunteers ages 18 to 55, about 40% of people receiving the dose level now being tested in a larger trial experienced fever after the second of the two-injection regimen, and 80% had chills.

Nearly all study subjects had injection-site pain, according to results published online by the New England Journal of Medicine in July.

Ian Hayden received the two-dose Moderna vaccine regimen at a study site in Seattle. After the second shot in May, he experienced fever and chills, which became severe