FDA responses to FOIA requests on COVID vaccines – not a conspiracy

FDA FOIA

This article about FDA responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by anti-vaccine activists was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

In contrast to anti-vaccine claims (and the headline that echoed them), the FDA responses to a broad Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are not evidence of a conspiracy or some kind of unusual problem (though it may reflect some of the general issues with our FOIA system).

In a recent set of posts by anti-vaccine activists, they criticized FDA for, allegedly, wanting 55 years to process a FOIA request for vaccine data. Unfortunately, some media sources repeated the claim uncritically. 

The reality, unsurprisingly, is different. A group that includes several anti-vaccine activists and people who have had anti-vaccine support in the past submitted a very broad request for documents related to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial.

These documents need to be redacted before being released, to protect interests like patient privacy and trade secrets. The parties are wrangling about the rate at which FDA should process those documents, and the anti-vaccine talking point is basically a misrepresentation of the FDA’s position about the schedule. Here is the report of both parties’ positions to the courts.

FDA explained that this is a very large request, it is one of several hundred they are dealing with, and their FOIA office is small. It wants to provide it at a rate of 500 pages a month, a rate that, from cases cited by FDA, has been repeatedly accepted by courts as reasonable (reflecting standard practice) and has already started providing some of the data. The group is demanding all the information in the next four months. The court will have to decide what is the appropriate rate of release. 

To emphasize — at no point did FDA ask the plaintiffs to wait 55 years for documents. The FDA offered to start releasing documents immediately, and work at a rate of 500 pages a month after December 1, releasing 500 pages to the plaintiffs each month – in order of priorities set by the plaintiffs.

This post will examine numerous issues surrounding FOIA requests to the FDA, and whether the responses by the FDA are reasonable or not.

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