Texas attorney general sues Pfizer, claiming vaccines didn’t end pandemic quickly enough

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton holds a press conference at the Houston Recovery Center on October 26, 2021. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused drugmaker Pfizer of fear-mongering and lies about the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine, which the company insinuated would end the pandemic, according to a lawsuit Paxton announced Thursday.

“In a nutshell, Pfizer deceived the public,” reads the 54-page lawsuit, filed in a Lubbock state district court.

The lawsuit alleges Pfizer “engaged in false, deceptive, and misleading acts and practices by making unsupported claims regarding the company’s COVID-19 vaccine in violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.”

Pfizer was the first drugmaker to get the federal government’s emergency approval for the vaccine in late 2020, less than a year after the first infection was detected in the U.S.

The company has since won full approval for the use of its vaccine from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Also, the global emergency health crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic has since been declared over.

But the lawsuit comes at a time when Texas conservatives are pushing bans on COVID-19 vaccine mandates and trumpeting other anti-vaccine positions that are espoused by their grassroots supporters in the months leading up to election season.

Paxton’s arguments, many of them familiar tropes among the anti-vaccine and COVID-19 denial crowd, hinge on the fact that the pandemic did not end soon enough — even though Pfizer officials never promised an end date to the health threat.

The drugmaker, he argues, claimed its vaccine was 95% effective but did not manage to end the pandemic within a year after being introduced.

“Contrary to Pfizer’s public statements, however, the pandemic did not end; it got worse. More Americans died in 2021, with Pfizer’s vaccine available, than in 2020, the first year of the pandemic,” the lawsuit says. “This, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of Americans received a COVID-19 vaccine, with most taking Pfizer’s.”

But like other portions of Paxton’s lawsuit, that’s a statement that is technically true, but easily manipulated, experts say. Other assertions made in the lawsuit filing, they argue, are completely unsubstantiated, such as one claiming that vaccinated people were more likely to die from COVID-19, which Texas health data disputes.

The COVID-19 pandemic ended three years after it started causing deaths in the U.S., just over two years after the vaccines were introduced. The virus has killed 1.2 million Americans since Spring 2020, although infections and deaths have dropped dramatically starting in early 2022 — which experts attribute to a weakening virus, herd immunity and the fact that about 75% of the U.S. population had at least one shot of the vaccine. There have been fewer than 300,000 American deaths from COVID-19 in the last year and a half.

On May 5, the World Health Organization declared an end to the global COVID-19 health emergency. The U.S. followed a few weeks later.

It’s true that the virus killed more people in 2021 — twice as many. But that’s a calendar-year measure of 12 months of full-on pandemic level infections, compared to less than nine months the year before, in which deaths were staying in the double digits in most states in the early weeks.

Of the 1.2 million Americans who have died from COVID since the first death was recorded in March 2020, more than half of them died within the first 12 months. By then, only a third of Americans had gotten the shot.

When the pandemic was declared over in May, about 70% of Americans were considered to be fully vaccinated — the point at which experts had been saying for years would signal the end of the crisis.

But while facts and science remain on the side of COVID-19 vaccine supporters, who include experts in some of the most influential medical organizations across the world, the lawsuit still has political ramifications, said Terri Burke, executive director of The Immunization Partnership in Houston.

“What this really does is it's just another attempt to erode confidence in all vaccines,” Burke said.

Paxton argues in the lawsuit that death rates were higher in some areas among vaccinated people than among unvaccinated people, but that’s not true for the overall rate in Texas.

The state’s own Department of State Health Services COVID-19 death tracker shows that as of April, the COVID death rate for fully vaccinated Texans is 12 times lower than that of unvaccinated Texans.

“These arguments have been around for a long time, and there are fact checks” that prove them wrong, Burke said. “This lawsuit and the rhetoric behind it are not going to make us safer. … It’s performative politics, as usual.”

Clarification, : This story has been updated to make more clear that it was the global emergency health declaration related to the pandemic that has ended. The virus is currently considered to be shifting from its pandemic stage into endemic status.