Published: September 7, 2021
EDMONTON — As Canadian politicians and health officials continue to advocate the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19, false claims about the “experimental nature” of the vaccines continue to circulate online.
An increasing number of people who are vaccine hesitant or anti-vaccine are wrongly claiming the shots are in violation of the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical research principles developed in the wake of Nazi atrocities during the Second World War.
The majority of social media posts surrounding the topic claim that COVID-19 vaccines violate the code because they are “experimental,” alleging that because the public is not being made aware of this, they are unable to give their informed consent to be a part of a medical experiment.
Many of the posts highlight language in the code that reads, “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential… without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion.”
What is the Nuremberg Code?
The Nuremberg Code was created in 1947 in Nuremberg, Germany, following a military war crimes tribunal of a group of Nazi doctors accused of conducting inhumane and deadly experiments on prisoners of concentration camps without their consent.
The code consists of 10 principles for doctors to conform to when carrying out experiments on human participants, referred to today as clinical trials, which all vaccines and medical treatments must undergo before being approved by authorities, such as Health Canada.
While the Nuremberg Code has not been officially adopted as law by any country, it’s had a massive influence on the development of medical ethics regulations globally, including Canadian ethics guidelines laid out by the Medical Research Council (MRC), now replaced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
COVID-19 vaccines are long past the experimental stage
The Nuremberg Code is specifically about experimentation, which means its principles are no longer relevant once a vaccine has been through a clinical trial and approved for use.
The four COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in Canada – including Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca – all underwent rigorous, carefully monitored large-scale clinical trials before being reviewed by Health Canada.
“It’s been very interesting to see people bringing up the Nuremberg trials when, in fact, that time is long gone. These are approved medications that are outside the auspices of the Nuremberg Code,” Dr. Alexis Paton, chair of ethics for the U.K. Royal College of Physicians and trustee of the U.K.-based Institute of Medical Ethics, told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
“As we’ve been developing these vaccines, as we’ve been doing trials, all of that has been in line with the Nuremberg Code. These are not people who were forced to take part in any kind of trial – it is an opt-out situation, there’s consent.”
For those who have concerns about the speed in which the COVID-19 vaccines were produced, Paton says it’s important to understand the circumstances in which they were developed.
“Vaccines can take up to a decade from start to finish, but not always. And what’s really important when we think about the COVID vaccines… a number of ‘time suck’ barriers that normally exist when you’re developing medication or vaccines were just done away with.
And that doesn’t mean the regulation was done away with. It means things like money was made available,” she said.
“I think people look at the vaccine and think it just arrived one day. But actually, it did follow all the processes that we put everything else through. We just, as a global health community, rallied together [to get it done faster].”
Paton notes that, like any new vaccine or medication, vaccine developers and health regulators will continue to collect data on any side effects reported in recipients, including those serious enough to warrant investigation, such as rare blood clots related to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
However, this does not mean the approved vaccines are “experimental.”
Nuremberg Code is not a formal treaty
Some of the claims related to this topic also seem to suggest that those who are advocating the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines will face legal repercussions, like the Nazis who stood trial for crimes against humanity.
Pearl Eliadis, a Montreal-based human rights lawyer and adjunct professor at McGill University, notes that the code is not a formal international treaty, but rather important guidance for medical ethics.
“A lot of the rules around what constitutes voluntary consent, the bioethical rules around experimentation, the development of drugs, all of these things, are set out in Canadian law in professional codes of practice for doctors that are binding on the profession… and they’re much more developed than what’s in the Nuremberg Code,” Eliadis told CTVNews.ca by phone Tuesday.
Eliadis, who has been teaching civil liberties for ten years, says that while she recognizes people are concerned about the impact things like vaccine mandates may have on their lives, she’s concerned that misunderstandings surrounding human rights laws is leading people to draw “problematic” conclusions.
“It’s really an eye-opener to see how people are failing to understand the relationship between many civil liberties and other rights and freedoms and values that are in our Constitution and in international law,” Eliadis said.
“All these rights and freedoms – including other people’s rights to health and security, not just your own rights – are part of the human rights framework.”
Paton agrees that the pandemic has been confusing, especially given the pace of how quickly medicine is moving. But she fears that those who are spreading this disinformation seem to be trading on the emotional ties to the Holocaust.
“[The Nuremberg Code] seems to be developing a myth around it, that you can somehow use it to justify that you don’t want to do something or that something is being forced upon you,” she explained.
“And it’s true that the Nuremberg Code comes out of the fact that there were atrocities from Nazi experimentation where people were forced to go through horrible things… I think that’s the connection that people are trying to invoke when they bring this up. But that’s just really misunderstanding what happened and doing quite a big disservice to the victims of that experimentation.”
Any claims that the COVID-19 vaccines violate the Nuremberg Code are false.
“To take those principles and to apply them to a context where a developing but known scientific procedure was used to develop a vaccine that went through all of the required testing procedures and phases for approval by drug administrations globally, that has been tested on and used on millions of people, in my view, is irresponsible,” said Eliadis.
Paton agreed, noting, “I think it’s natural that people are pushing back on some of the things they don’t understand or that they are worried about. But if their concern is that there’s some sort of mass global forced experimentation on people that is violating the codes of conduct that we have, then they are simply factually wrong.”