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COVID vaccine indemnity: What does it mean for Australians?

The Australian government has given the suppliers of two COVID-19 vaccines indemnity against liability for rare side-effects – but one academic argues Australia needs compensation schemes in place.

Associate Professor Nicholas Wood, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney, said while details are scant, it appears the government would “foot the bill for compensation” should a member of the public win legal action against the drug companies behind the University of Oxford or University of Queensland vaccine.

Writing for The Conversation, Wood said while such a deal in not entirely unheard of or unexpected – with the government previously providing some indemnity to companies that make vaccines against smallpox and influenza – it is “not ideal” for a member of the public who believes they have been injured by a vaccine.

“The person still has to engage with the legal system, which is both costly and complex, and there’s no guarantee of success,” he said.

“Compensation may not even be possible via our legal system. That’s because in most cases, it will be difficult to show in court a serious side-effect was due to a fault in the vaccine composition or negligence in the way it was administered.

“So in Australia, people with a vaccine injury, either COVID-19 or other vaccine, will likely bear the costs of their injury by themselves, and seek treatment by our publicly-funded or private health systems.”

Australia is not alone in its approach to indemnity deals for COVID-19 vaccines – governments in the UK, US and the European Union have also agreed to indemnify manufacturers.

However, 25 countries, including Japan, the US, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, have in place no-fault compensation schemes for rare vaccine side-effects.

Wood said there are numerous benefits to a no-fault vaccine compensation system. “These include simplified access to compensation, and avoiding a lengthy, costly and complex encounter with the legal system, with no guarantee of success.”

Still, he added, compensation awarded via such a scheme is usually lower than what a person would receive after a successful liability lawsuit.

Wood said if the government wants to encourage people to get a COVID-19 jab when one is available, Australia needs compensation schemes in place.

“Should options to increase vaccine uptake include mandates or penalties — such as employment or travel restrictions if not vaccinated — this would make a no-fault vaccine compensation scheme even more essential.

“Although it is important manufacturers receive indemnity for ‘certain liabilities’, we still need to look after our community. That means a compensation system the public can easily access and which provides appropriate support.”

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