Idaho bill would criminalize giving an mRNA vaccine: ‘It feels like an attack on our profession’

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Although it’s not likely to pass, at least not this year, opponents say the proposal is already accelerating the spread of false claims and sowing distrust of physicians.

Idaho House Bill 154 is 17 lines − plenty enough to get physicians up in arms.

The bill prohibits providing or administering any mRNA vaccine to humans or other mammals. Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Opponents say that healthcare providers could face fines or jail time, and the loss of their medical licenses.

A. Patrice Burgess, M.D.

A. Patrice Burgess, M.D.

“It feels like an attack on our profession,” A. Patrice Burgess, M.D., a family medicine physician in Boise, said in an interview with JAMA. “I’ve been a doctor for 30 years; I’ve never seen anything like this level of animosity.

Burgess, a former chair of the governor’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee, said she hopes that people trust physicians more than politicians to provide accurate healthcare information.

State Sen. Tammy Nichols, a Republican, introduced the bill in February, citing concerns about the workhorse COVID-19 vaccines being “fast-tracked,” according to local news reports.

Paul Montgomery, M.D., an oncologist at Boise VA Medical Center and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told JAMA that the cosponsors never consulted with physicians about the rigorous clinical trials that led to FDA approval.

As a result, he said, unwarranted fears, mis- and disinformation have trickled down to the public, including his own patients, adding that for politicians “to say that we don’t have good data is simply a lie.” Idaho has the sixth-lowest vaccination rate among the states.

With COVID-19 claiming an average of nearly 30,000 American lives a month in 2020, vaccines based on mRNA technology from Moderna and from Pfizer and BioNTech were, indeed, given fast-track designation by the FDA while full-fledged clinical trials were underway. But the technology wasn’t new: It had been in development and testing for more than 30 years, with the first human trial showing the feasibility and safety of an mRNA vaccine for melanoma published in 2008.

The Idaho legislation, HO154, doesn’t mention COVID-19 or any other vaccine target by name but would appear to hinder current clinical trials in Idaho for mRNA vaccines in development against HIV, cancer and respiratory syncytial virus.

The mere existence of the bill is problematic, Georgetown University Law Professor Lawrence Gostin, J.D., said in an interview. “It’s one thing if you’ve got wild conspiracy theories on social media and the internet; it’s quite another when elected officials set out to enact those policies,” said Gostin, who directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law as well as the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. He said that physicians around the country should prepare for more proposals that target the medical community.

Republicans in North Dakota this year introduced legislation with wording nearly identical to the Idaho bill. But the text about banning mRNA vaccines was stripped out after it failed in committee and was replaced by a call for an optional interim legislative study on the long-term health effects of mRNA vaccines.The revised version passed the state Senate and will now move to the House.

Gostin believes that the FDA’s authority would supersede any possible state bans and would be upheld by the courts but is reluctant to predict what would happen if a casereached the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

Montgomery, the cancer doctor who has been following the mRNA wars, doesn’t thinkthe Idaho legislation will make it out of committee this year. “But if we keep seeing the same sort of rhetoric, a bill like this will eventually pass,” he said.

There already are repercussions. A physician who interviewed recently for a job in Burgess’s community “heard about this piece of legislation and wondered if it’s a good place to practice,” said the family medicine doctor and member of the Idaho Medical Association’s Board of Trustees.

She recommends that physicians keep open lines of communication and continue reassuring their patients about mRNA vaccine data. Just as important, doctors should educate local legislators when they can “and help them understand the medical profession as individuals, and not just paint (us with) a broad brush and distrust us as a community,” Burgess said in her interview with JAMA.

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