Vaccine makers' legal shield questioned

Now that vaccines have become one of Big Pharma's biggest growth engines, should vaccine makers continue to wear a legal shield?

Back in 1986, when companies were pulling out of the vaccine business because of lawsuits and low margins, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created to encourage development of shots to prevent childhood diseases. The strategy worked; new vaccines were generated and drove "huge reductions" in major childhood diseases, the Wall Street Journal notes.

Along the way, vaccines also grew sales to the point where they're expected to pull down $21.5 billion for their makers by 2012. Now that they're so lucrative, critics say, the legal shield isn't necessary. Earlier this month, a special vaccines court created by that 1986 law ruled that childhood shots aren't linked to autism--and for some, that ruling showed how little opportunity families have to claim injury from childhood vaccines. The special court limits damages to $250,000.

Of course, plaintiffs' lawyers would prefer to take suits to regular civil court. But other medical-industry experts also question the continuing need for the special court. "When you've got a monopoly and can dictate price in a way that you couldn't before, I'm not sure you need the liability protection," Lars Noah, a specialist in medical technology at the University of Florida's law school, told the WSJ.

Pharma, on the other hand, says the liability protection is still necessary to make expensive clinical trials worthwhile. Plus, injured families can still take their claims to civil court if they don't like how the vaccine court rules, or if their claims simply languish there.

- read the WSJ story