Minnesota officials' vaccine skit has questionable claims, but dynamite props

Republican Reps. Eric Lucero and Mary Franson attempted a take-down of Big Pharma and vaccines. It wasn't the finest moment of the Minnesota Legislature.

Republican Reps. Eric Lucero and Mary Franson attempted a take-down of Big Pharma and vaccines. It wasn't the finest moment of the Minnesota Legislature. The RIGHT View, Facebook

Minnesota Republican state Reps. Eric Lucero (Dayton) and Mary Franson (Alexandria) make a dynamic duo on their regular web series, The RIGHT View. On Saturday, they spiced things up with a skit of sorts, in which Franson donned some sparkly dollar sign glasses and a nametag that read “BIG Pharma” in gold glitter.

Topics varied throughout this lively segment, then Lucero interrogated Big Pharma Franson about vaccines. He asked her why they’re so expensive, referenced payouts made by the government to people who have supposedly been injured by them, and questioned their general efficacy.

Franson did little to reassure him. She cackled like a Disney villain and talked about how much money she was making on all those “suckers” out there immunizing their kids. Here's the clip -- the vaccine talk starts around the 9:30 mark. 

Franson has always had a reputation for hot takes. She once compared a bunch of teens marching for stricter gun control laws to Hitler youth and posted a mean tweet the morning after Minneapolis elected Andrea Jenkins (a trans woman) to the city council.

Lucero’s picked some interesting hills to die on, too, including this jacket.

But misinformation about vaccines has a lot of harm attached. Here’s an annotated, fact-checked version of the skit. (Neither representative responded to interview requests.)

Lucero: Why aren’t vaccines tested according to the gold standard of having a double-blind saline placebo?

Actually, they have been. A prominent example includes the trial of the polio vaccine in 1954, in which over a million children were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo, the polio vaccine, or nothing at all. One year later, they had their results – the vaccine was safe and effective. We’ve since nearly eradicated polio from the face of the Earth.

That, according to a report by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, was a necessary step in determining the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. But it would be deeply problematic to continue to do randomized tests on the polio vaccine, because it would require possibly letting a child become paralyzed.

“If there is already a known vaccine that is safe and effective, it is unethical to randomize children into an unvaccinated group because we would be denying them the benefits of being vaccinated,” the report says. “Furthermore, parents who are against vaccination would likely not allow their children to be randomized into a vaccinated group, leading to bias in the understanding of the results.”

When it’s not ethical to conduct these randomized double-blinds, doctors use other methods to test vaccines, like studies that follow children who have been vaccinated, as well as those who have been not, and look for any illnesses or syndromes as they compare each group. This is the way a Danish study recently found there was no relationship whatsoever between the MMR vaccine and autism.

But enough on that – let’s get to Franson’s answer.

Franson: Hah – money. Lots of money. Anyone who questions vaccines is automatically an anti-vaxer. And I deem any person to be peddlers of dangerous ideas who question the safety of vaccines. I cannot believe that you, Representative Lucero, are asking me about this topic. The audacity.

Yes, vaccines are profitable for pharmaceutical companies, but it wasn’t Big Pharma’s idea to invest in them. They used to be the unprofitable “runt” of the drugs industry. After all, how is one supposed to make money on a product that works so well for so long? You have to keep buying medication for conditions like high blood pressure or asthma, but with one or two doses of a vaccine, you’re protected from certain diseases for life. They're considered some of the most cost-effective drugs on the market.

Pharma companies recognized this and gradually stopped investing in vaccines. In 2003, the United States experienced huge shortages of most childhood immunizations. It took rising demand for vaccines in developing companies (spurred by humanitarian organizations) and huge advances in research (like developing a vaccine for the human papilloma virus) to convince Big Pharma there might be gold in them there hills after all.

Doctors and pediatricians – not vaccine companies – are responsible for pushing vaccines on the public. Coincidentally, they often end up losing money on administrating them.

Lucero: Don’t parents have the right to ask about the ingredients in vaccines? For example, the MMR vaccine has fetal tissue with DNA.

Well, only kind of. MMR is one of the vaccines derived from a human cell line that originated from the tissues of two legally aborted fetuses, one in 1964 and one in 1970. The cell lines themselves have an indefinite lifespan, so it’s not like manufacturers are continually obtaining aborted fetuses to make them, or contaminating vaccines with actual fetal tissue. But they are derived from viruses grown in human cell cultures.

A Catholic bishop was asked to ruminate on the ethics of this issue and determined that Catholic parents have no general obligation to refuse permission for these life-saving vaccines.

That said, here’s Franson’s explanation:

Franson: Listen here. Prior to 1986, parents were suing vaccine companies, doctors, and nurses due to devastating injuries caused by the DTP vaccine. So we decided to go to our buddies in Congress – brilliant – and we donated to campaigns, which was awesome, and we got the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 passed. So that means we can’t be sued anymore. We also don’t have to run double-blind placebo testing on our vaccine products, because that responsibility got put on the government. And guess what? They aren’t doing it. Hah! Brilliant.

The National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act originates in the spring of 1970, when eight-month-old Anita Reyes received a dose of oral polio vaccine and later contracted paralysis in her lower body, resulting in permanent incontinence. Her father sued the maker, Wyeth Laboratories. At the time, this vaccine was derived from a live virus that ran a very slim – but possible – risk of causing patients to contract the disease it was trying to prevent.

Before you ask, no, we don’t use live polio vaccines anymore, and it’s impossible to get polio from a vaccine today. But in a time when polio was paralyzing American children, developers thought the risk was heavily outweighed by the potential benefits. By the ‘70s, the polio epidemic was becoming a dim memory, and claims like Anita’s were becoming more common, and more worrisome.

That’s not to say actual vaccine-related injuries were suddenly spiking. Vaccines were (and are even more so now) some of the safest medications we have. But if a child develops an illness after receiving a vaccine, it’s easy to propose a causal link, and almost impossible to disprove one. That makes these cases tough to argue and very expensive to lose. In several instances, damages for vaccine-related injuries have been awarded despite the absence of scientific evidence.

Drug companies being drug companies, this was more than enough incentive to stop developing vaccines, which was a nightmare for doctors and public health officials. So Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986, and indemnified the companies from further lawsuits. It was a way to beg Big Pharma to keep making life-saving medicine, with the incentive that the government would take on the risk and potential backlash.

It was also a quid pro quo for people with alleged vaccine injuries. They gave up some of their ability to get redress through the court system, but in return, they were assured “swift and certain compensation,” as the Atlantic put it. Which brings us to our current total of over $4 billion awarded in “vaccine court.”

Lucero: Well, according to historical data, in 1962 there were five vaccine doses for U.S. children. In 1983, that increased to 24 doses, and now in 2019, 72 doses. Why?

Mostly because we’ve developed more vaccines that prevent more illnesses. In the ‘60s, we didn’t have any protection from tetanus, diphtheria, or rubella – all of which can be serious or fatal. Even though some of these diseases we vaccinate against – like smallpox – have been mostly wiped out due to immunization, it’s still important to herd immunity to keep the diseases from resurging.

Let’s get to Franson’s answer.

Franson: Well, as I have stated, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 happened. Now we can’t be sued for harm caused by our products. Parents can’t even question the safety. And now, we are going… state by state in stripping parental rights to force our liability-free product upon every child. It’s just brilliant.

And thank goodness, because the products that are held liable – like Viox, for example – are costing me billions in lawsuits. And I need the vaccine money to keep me afloat. Global sales jumped 12 percent in the second quarter in 2019. My Gardasil vaccine – don’t pay attention to the fact that it’s controversial and dangerous. But thankfully, state by state, it’s being mandated for both girls and boys. Because of these mandates, sales rose 46 percent to $886 million.

Woohoo! It’s so exciting. Can you imagine? Just think how much money I’m going to make once I force every boy and girl in Minnesota to get that Gardasil vaccine – millions and millions more dollars in my pocketbook.

Gardasil prevents human papillomavirus (HPV), which is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. It can cause genital warts, but more seriously, cancer of the cervix or penis. No matter what you have in your pants, you can benefit from getting the Gardasil vaccine, and your sexual partners will thank you for it.

When Franson calls it “controversial,” there are a couple of things she could mean. When the vaccine first came out in the early 2000s, a lot of parents balked at vaccinating 11-year-old girls for a disease transmitted sexually. But the fact remains that young people are often sexually active in their teens, and it doesn’t do them much good to get vaccinated for an STI only after they’ve started having sex. Rather than counting on your teen being indefinitely abstinent, it's probably best to immunize early.

She could also be referring to allegations that the vaccine is dangerous. Two children have died of a rare neurological disorder after being immunized, but independent studies couldn’t find any evidence that these deaths – or any others – were caused by Gardasil, which has gone through tens of thousands of clinical trials to prove its safety and efficacy. The only confirmed reason it might be unsafe is if you’re allergic to it, but you should probably talk to your doctor about that one.

Lucero: Well, according to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System, over $4.2 billion has been paid out to those who’ve been harmed by vaccines. In 2019 alone, over $206 million has been paid out. Who pays for this money? Do you, Big Pharma, cut a check?

Franson: Hah! Nope. I don’t pay for that. That’s the beauty of the 1986 law. Every person who gets a vaccine is charged a 75 percent excise tax on each dose of a vaccine. The more diseases the people are vaccinated against, the more they are taxed. The MMR – because it’s a three-dose vaccine – has a $2.25 tax attached to this. I don’t pay this tax. I make the consumer pay. I am not held accountable.

Lucero: So, wait. Vaccine consumers are the ones who pay to provide the lifelong care for those who are injured by vaccines?

Franson: Absolutely. Suckers. We are laughing all the way to the bank.

Again, vaccines have been proven to be overwhelmingly safe, but the way vaccine court works errs on the side of a payout.

Franson and Lucero are right about one thing – it does suck that the only way to motivate Big Pharma to keep making vaccines is to pick up the check. 

Franson: Now excuse me, Representative Lucero. I’ve got to work on mandating my liability-free products on Minnesotan kids, so I’m going to bid you adieu.

Lucero: Well, I wish I could say it was a pleasure.

So do we, Rep. Lucero. So do we.