False claims circulate about HPV vaccine amid Gardasil lawsuits
CLAIM: Merck is on trial for fraud regarding its human papillomavirus vaccine, which has been banned in other countries and has been found to cause cancer.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The New Jersey pharmaceutical giant faces a number of civil lawsuits regarding Gardasil but none of the cases have reached the trial stage, spokespersons for Merck and a law firm representing various plaintiffs claiming injuries from the vaccine confirm. They also confirm Gardasil has not been banned anywhere and federal health officials say the vaccine cannot cause cancer.
THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing a post warning of the purported dangers of vaccines to prevent cancer-causing HPV by pointing out that Merck faces legal action for its inoculation.
“California, if you don’t know already that HPV vaccine is one of the most injurious in the history of vaccines then you should,” reads the post, which uses ax emojis in place of the word “vaccine.” “Countries have banned it. Too many injured or worse. Merck is on trial for fraud because it not only does not prevent cancer it may ahem, do the opposite.
A post by one user, who shared a screenshot of the quote, has been liked more than 4,400 times as of Monday.
But while lawsuits have been filed against Merck in a number of states, most are in the early stages and aren’t heading to trial any time soon, spokespersons for both the company and plaintiffs confirmed.
The two sides also confirmed Gardasil has never been banned in any country, despite what the posts claim.
Bob Josephson, a spokesperson for Merck, said the Japanese government stopped recommending HPV vaccines in 2013 following reports of alleged side effects, but the inoculations remained approved and available in the country. Japan’s health ministry resumed active recommendation of HPV vaccines last year.
“The overwhelming body of scientific evidence — which includes more than 20 years of research and development — continues to support the safety and efficacy profile of our HPV vaccines,” he wrote in an email. “We will vigorously defend against these cases.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, has refuted the notion that the HPV vaccines cause cancer rather than prevent it.
“The vaccine is made from one protein from the virus and is not infectious, meaning it cannot cause HPV infection or cancer,” the agency stated in a 2021 fact sheet on the inoculation.
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed by individuals claiming they suffered a range of injuries after taking Gardasil, including autoimmune disorders, premature ovarian failure, chronic fatigue, pain and even cancer.
The suits claim Merck fraudulently masked serious side effects and exaggerated the drug’s effectiveness during clinical trials in order to fast track it through federal review.
The CDC, in its fact sheet, acknowledges HPV vaccines can cause minor side effects such as fainting, nausea and headache. But the vaccine does not cause fertility problems, the agency said.
Infections that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts also have dropped 88% among teen girls, and fewer women are developing cervical pre-cancer since Gardasil was initially approved in 2006, according to the CDC fact sheet.
Last August, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated many of the legal challenges against Merck under a single federal judge in North Carolina in order to streamline the discovery and pre-trial process.
Bijan Esfandiari, a lawyer helping lead the lawsuits against Merck, said roughly 80 cases are included in the Multi-District Litigation, or MDL, with dozens more pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims’ Vaccine Injury Compensation Program that could also be added to the proceedings.
“Wisner Baum has been litigating these cases for four years and we’ve amassed millions of pages of internal Merck documents,” he wrote in a statement, referring to his Los Angeles-based law firm. “We are in the process of the declassification of internal docs that support our allegations.”
Litigation is also playing out in a number of state courts, including seven cases in California, one in New York and one in New Jersey, according to Josephson, of Merck.
Some of the California cases had been slated to go to trial this September but were recently postponed to September 2024 in order to coordinate their progress with the federal claims, he confirmed.
“Trial stage has not been reached for any of these cases and no trials will happen in 2023,” Josephson wrote in an email.
The lawsuits can also be resolved in a settlement before ever reaching trial, notes Frank Johns, clerk for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, where the consolidated federal case is playing out.
“It’s never certain one of these cases will go to trial because they’re so huge and complex,” he said in a phone interview. “That happens a lot with these mega cases, frankly. It takes a while, so settlement is always a real possibility.”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.