Public Health

Why feds had compelling interest to act on vaccine disinformation

Andis Robeznieks , Senior News Writer

Editor’s note: In late June, the high court held that the plaintiffs—five users of social media services and two states—did not have legal standing to sue.

Vaccines save lives, prevent disease and reduce stress on the nation’s health care system. Because of this, the government has a compelling interest in combatting vaccine misinformation to prevent factually incorrect statements from costing lives.

That is the argument put forth in an amicus brief (PDF) filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Murthy v. Missouri by the AMA, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Physicians and American Geriatrics Society. The high court will hear oral arguments in the case March 18.

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The brief notes that these organizations represent “hundreds of thousands of medical professionals who have witnessed both the lifesaving promise of vaccination in clinical settings and the ability of misinformation to destroy that promise.”

Additionally, based on decades of research and professional experience, these organizations “believe that vaccines are among the most important public health interventions, and that widespread vaccine uptake has substantial public health benefits that cannot be achieved by any other means.”

Meanwhile, the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana filed suit after individuals contended social media companies were coerced into censoring them after they posted content criticizing COVID-19 policies and mask and vaccine mandates.

The Biden administration, however, contends that its communication with social media companies was an attempt to “mitigate the hazards of online misinformation” by highlighting content that violated the companies’ own policies, according to news reports.

Find out about the cases in which the AMA Litigation Center is providing assistance and learn about the Litigation Center’s case-selection criteria.

The brief focuses on how disinformation diminished uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, which then limited the vaccines’ ability to save lives by controlling the spread of disease—thereby creating a compelling interest for the government to act.

“Combating vaccine misinformation is, at its simplest, the government trying to prevent factually incorrect statements from costing people their lives,” the brief says.

Its argument on this point notes that vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are safe and that vaccinations save lives, reduce the prevalence of deadly diseases and lower the burden on the health care system.

It also argues that misinformation about vaccines led to declining immunization uptake, which “meaningfully interferes with their lifesaving role in a well-functioning public health system,” and that combatting vaccine misinformation diverts time and resources from clinical care.

The brief cites studies that found SARS-CoV-2 vaccinations prevented an estimated 235,000 COVID-19-associated deaths in the U.S. among vaccinated adults between Dec. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, and reduced mortality by as much as 40% among hospitalized patients.

It also notes that “greater strain on medical resources leads to worse health outcomes,” and argues that vaccinations indirectly produced better health outcomes for patients with ailments unrelated to COVID-19 because an increased strain on hospitals and health professionals was avoided.

Find out what doctors wish patients knew about how well COVID-19 vaccines work, and read the latest on the updated COVID-19 mRNA vaccine approved last fall.

Vaccine safety is subject to FDA scrutiny, which only grants its approval after scientists conduct extensive clinical trials. After vaccines are approved, government agencies continue to monitor their safety, the brief says.

In contrast, disinformation claims that people became “magnetized” after vaccination or that vaccinated individuals were implanted with a tracking microchip or became infertile were widely circulated without any proof of their validity.

“None of these assertions are supported by credible evidence,” the brief says, adding that some of these very claims were the subject of communications at issue in this case.

The declining vaccination uptake spurred by disinformation has also resulted in a resurgence of diseases—such as measles—that previously verged on eradication, the brief says.

A July 2023 district-court ruling to limit the Biden administration’s communication with social media companies was upheld in part by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last fall, the Supreme Court “froze” the original district court order as modified by the appellate court until it could rule on the case itself this term.

In another vaccine-related case, the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies filed an amicus brief with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals urging it to uphold a permanent injunction preventing Montana officials from enforcing a 2021 law barring physicians from knowing the vaccination status of employees or patients who refuse to answer questions about it.

Stay informed with the AMA COVID-19 resource center for physicians.