Deal on Frist vaccine bill may be set

By MARK BENJAMIN  |  April 8, 2003 at 3:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- The Senate Wednesday may strike a deal on how to handle hundreds of suits by parents who believe a common vaccine additive caused a wave of autism during the 1990s when the substance, called thimerosal, was heavily used, according to negotiators involved in talks on Capitol Hill.

If negotiations are successful, parents of children allegedly injured by vaccines in the early 1990s will still be able to seek compensation, but only under a federal program that limits payments and not in court.

Those parents were outraged late last year when Republicans in Congress quietly slipped a provision into homeland security legislation that would have insulated vaccine giant Eli Lilly from thimerosal suits. Congress repealed that provision two months later.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Health Committee Chairman Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Tuesday held a news conference to support their "Improved Vaccine Affordability and Availability Act." The original version of that legislation would also have barred those families from compensation, similar to the provision that was in the homeland security bill.

But negotiators on Capitol Hill said privately that Frist might agree to alter his legislation Wednesday to give those parents a one-year grace period to pursue their claims -- but only in a federal program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services that limits some claims to $250,000. Those claims would be barred from court.

Frist said Tuesday he might be willing to alter his bill and allow some of those complaints from the early 1990s to receive some compensation.

"We will look and see how far you should go back," he said. "That is an issue that we will look at tomorrow."

Under the bill, new injuries from vaccines would also go into the federal program, but would still have the option of later going to court.

Parent of autistic children criticized any effort to derail their claims as a payoff to vaccine manufacturers.

"I think that you are either for mercury poisoning and drug companies, or you are for vaccine injury compensations regardless of the time period and you are for justice," said Lara Bono, a North Carolina woman whose son, Jackson, began exhibiting symptoms of autism on Aug. 14, 1990, four days after receiving a series of shots containing thimerosal.

Bono says that within two weeks, Jackson stopped responding to his parents. Two weeks later he would not make eye contact.

"Fast forward another couple of months and he was gone," Bono said. "The mercury was in his brain."

Like most parents, she did not realize that thimerosal might have played a role until the late 1990s, when vaccine manufacturers began to remove it from vaccines.

The American Academy of Pediatricians did not call for the removal of thimerosal from vaccines until 1999, though it says there is no evidence proving a link.

Scientists disagree over whether thimerosal causes autism.

Gregg said his legislation would help prevent the threat of lawsuits from crippling the vaccine industry.

"The fact is that our vaccine industry has been essentially wiped out and it has been wiped out by fear of liability," Gregg said Tuesday at a news conference in support of his bill.

Frist said some lawsuits threatening the industry were "unnecessary and expensive."

Once a sleepy backwater of the global healthcare industry, vaccines are now outpacing drugs in terms of sales growth. Global market is now at $6.5 billion. The total market is expected to top $10 billion by 2010. The vaccine market had 14 percent compound annual growth throughout 1990s -- drug sales grew at 8 percent during the same time period.

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