Medical experts and the federal government have slammed Clive Palmer’s public campaign of advertisements casting doubt on the COVID vaccine rollout, warning his “dangerous” actions could jeopardise the scheme.
“I’m in favour of free speech, but not in favour of spreading unscientific nonsense in a pandemic,” Dr Andrew Miller, president of the Australian Medical Association’s Western Australia branch.
The federal health department has also hit back, saying the billionaire mining magnate’s claims have no basis in fact.
Palmer ads have ‘factual inaccuracies’: Department of Health
Mr Palmer, briefly a federal MP, has prominently placed multiple large advertisements in major newspapers in recent weeks.
The ads, splashed in the fluoro-yellow of his Palmer United and United Australia parties, raise unfounded doubts about Australia’s vaccination efforts.
In The Australian newspaper, owned by News Corp, he paid for a full-page ad on March 4 to claim he was “concerned by the emergency use of this vaccine”.
This is an incorrect claim, with Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration running a full approval process on both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca – not an emergency use authorisation, as other nations around the world have enacted.
In a statement, the federal Department of Health said that ad “contains factual inaccuracies”.
“The TGA does not have an ‘Emergency Use Authorisation’ pathway for COVID-19 vaccines. Australia has issued a formal regulatory approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine,” a spokesperson told The New Daily.
On Monday, Mr Palmer placed another prominent ad on the front page of The West Australian newspaper, owned by Seven West, which also raised doubts about vaccines.
It asked why the government had “provided pharmaceutical companies with an indemnity from injury or death” from vaccines, and that readers should “ask Mark McGowan”, WA’s Labor premier.
Mr Palmer is also wrong here. While state governments are pivotal in rolling out vaccinations through doctors and clinics, it was the federal Coalition government – not the WA state Labor government – that inked deals with vaccine manufacturers and provided the indemnity.
This is not an uncommon feature of vaccine supply agreements, and was revealed in the 2020 federal budget to cover “certain liabilities that could result from the use of the vaccine”.
The government had declined to provide details of the indemnity agreements, claiming they were “commercial in confidence”.
‘Dangerous’ impact on vaccine confidence
Dr Miller, the president of the AMA’s WA branch, was scathing in his response to Mr Palmer.
“He’s got form in this regard, talking up hydroxychloroquine. Making Trump-like insurgencies into the public conversation around COVID seems to be his modus operandi at the moment,” he told The New Daily.
“The government needs to respond directly to this … this is potentially dangerous.”
The New Daily attempted to contact Mr Palmer, including through his representatives and his company Mineralogy, numerous times for this story.
Phone calls, emails, texts and Twitter messages were not answered.
Dr Miller said he was worried about such rhetoric boosting hesitancy to vaccination.
The federal health department released poll results last month that found 27 per cent of Australians say they are “unsure” about vaccination, with 9 per cent saying they “definitely will not” get a jab.
“You can divide the population of adults into three groups: Those on board and itching to get vaccinated; those a bit unsure and hesitant, with legitimate questions about their health; and then anti-vaxxers who you won’t get through to,” Dr Miller said.
“For someone who is vaccine hesitant, [Mr Palmer’s ads] might raise more meritless considerations … people see things in the paper, they think maybe there’s something behind this.”
Dr Miller also criticised the media organisations for running the ads in the first place, saying they were “publishing the stuff they’ve been criticising”.
“They’ve placed themselves in a difficult ethical situation, carrying content that should be questioned at an editorial level. If you’re taking the money for an ad, their editorial pages should say, ‘Don’t believe what you see on page 1’,” he claimed.
Seven West and News Corp did not respond to requests for comment.
In comments to The Guardian last week, The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Dore said he did not agree with Mr Palmer’s claims.
“The Australian accepts political advertising from across the spectrum,” Dore said.
“This should obviously never be interpreted as an endorsement of the messages those advertisements carry. The Australian supports the COVID-19 vaccination program and disagrees with Mr Palmer’s perspective on the matter.”
Health department hits back
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler slammed Mr Palmer for spreading “dangerous disinformation”.
“Mr Palmer is not only questioning the science of vaccines, he is questioning the independent expert approvals process and legal protections for medical professionals,” Mr Butler claimed.
TND contacted federal Health Minister Greg Hunt for comment. In a statement, the federal Department of Health said Mr Palmer’s advertisements were wrong.
“A decision to provisionally approve the vaccine was made following rigorous assessment of all the available data,” the spokesperson said.
They said that emergency use authorisations for vaccines, such as those granted in the United States and United Kingdom, “are not the same as regulatory approval, and have been made in response to the very high COVID-19 disease burden and risk in those countries”.
The health department again urged Australians to trust authorised information from official government sources, including australia.gov.au and health.gov.au.