Developing safe vaccines is a process that typically takes many years, with extensive clinical trials and a lengthy approval process — until now.
Under immense pressure to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, scientists are in an unprecedented race to develop a vaccine within a matter of months, and make it available to the world.
Normally, vaccine-related side effects are relatively rare. But in the past, when vaccines were rushed to market during surging outbreaks, there were also outbreaks of vaccine-related side effects.
These side effects are usually rare, but they can be deadly.
One example is the 1976 swine flu vaccine. It was used in a mass-vaccination program that ended after just 10 weeks when reports suggested that it increased the risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a rare side effect in which the vaccine triggers a form of paralysis.
The risk of GBS was estimated at approximately 1 in 100,000 people who received the vaccine, but due to the mass immunization program, about 450 people developed GBS. Of those people, 25 died.
In the U.S., vaccine courts still pay out millions of dollars to people who develop GBS — primarily after receiving flu shots.
At least 19 countries already have programs to compensate people who are injured by vaccines. One notable exception is Canada.
“If you do suffer an adverse event, a serious adverse event, one of those very rare events, you should be compensated.” said Jennifer Keelan, a retired researcher who worked at the University of Toronto’s Department of Public Health.
Vaccines also commonly have other rare but serious side effects, such as allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) and brain injuries. They may also have unique side effects that no one was expecting. For example, in 2009, the H1N1 influenza vaccine was linked to cases of narcolepsy.