by Edgar L. Gärtner
Lessons about Precaution from the Swine Flu Vaccine Fiasco
The French government under the ever-energized President Nicolas Sarkozy became aware at the beginning of the year that it was threatened to sit on more than 90 million doses of Swine flu vaccine, hastily ordered last year to face an allegedly advancing pandemic. Only five out of currently more than 60 million French people got vaccinated to date against the exaggerated threat of a planetary swine flu pandemic. According to estimates by physicians, at the same time more than 20 million French people got immunized against the new flu variant free of charge, by responding to infection with barely perceptible slight flu symptoms. More than one billion euros seemed to be set in the sand. In the German federal states, the situation is similar but not quite as bad as in France. Since the ordered batches are in part not yet produced, France and Germany managed to cancel at least part of their orders. Especially in France the following questions remain unanswered: Why almost 100 million vaccines were ordered – three times more than what would have been necessay for a reasonable coverage of the population? Why did the government invest simultaneously on a vast storage of the controversial flu drug Tamiflu (one third of total world reserves!)? Why were expensive gas masks purchased, but only available for top officials and managers?
I’m not looking for responses like those given by libertarians and conspiracy theorists, whereby the virus itself H1N1 and his propagation is imputed to worldwide machinations of pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Sanofi-Pasteur and Novartis. I restrict myself rather to the official justification of action by the “precautionary principle”. This decision scheme was invented in Germany at the beginning of the 70s and became known worldwide after the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro under the following definition: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” (Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration). Subsequently, this principle was introduced into the Maastricht Treaty, the Lisbon Constitutional Treaty and the French Constitution. As Nicolas Sarkozy has himself set upon overrun the Germans with preventive rhetoric, he gave his officers orders to try hard to follow the principle consistently. But just by doing that they have created the problems they are now facing. Because unlimited provision is an absurd idea. Those who constantly concentrate on precaution, forget to live. The precautionary principle is useful only insofar as it is not consistently applied. Healing is much more important than prevention, even though the welfare state’s advertising is mindlessly repeating the opposite.
The above-quoted definition of the “precautionary principle”, namely, leaves open the question of whether preventive measures are also subject to cost-benefit criteria or not. Widespread is the view that cost considerations are not justified when it comes to human life. If this argument was valid, there would be neither life nor accident insurance. Underlining this I do not deny that the monetary evaluation of life issues must remain very restricted. But even non-monetary evaluations of the costs and benefits of measures to prevent hypothetical threats appear all too often more than doubtful, especially when they show that screening is only available at the cost of freedom. There are exceptions like private retirement plans or provisions for maintenance and repair costs, as well as precaution measures against harmful events, whose probability can be realistically estimated. But even in these cases it is often not enough to weigh between the advantages and disadvantages of economically justifiable protection measures. In real life instead, people often have to decide between two evils. Which one is the lesser?
Such decisions, if they are not spontaneously taken from the gut, can in general not be justified without any reference to religious belief. As long as Christianity was prevailing in Europe this was no problem. Later, Christian Humanism was successively replaced by Ecologism, a synthetic mix of knowledge and unfounded beliefs with a clear misanthropic, if not nihilist tendency. No wonder that allegedly preventive actions and investments, justified by the “precautionary principle” more and more turn out to be economically disastrous.