In 1976, an outbreak of the swine flu, influenza A virus subtype H1N1 at Fort Dix, New Jersey caused a mass vaccination of Americans. After the program began, the vaccine was associated with an increase in reports of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which can cause paralysis, respiratory arrest, and death.
This is the story of how in 1976, the US government faked a pandemic.This chronology is heavily influenced by the official history of the affair, published in 1978 by the National Academies Press: The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease.
In January 1976, several soldiers at Fort Dix complained of a respiratory illness diagnosed as influenza. The next month, Private David Lewis, who had the symptoms, participated in a five-mile forced march, collapsed and died.
The New Jersey Department of Health tested samples from the Fort Dix soldiers. While the majority of samples were of the more common A Victoria flu strain, two were not. The atypical samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, which found evidence of swine influenza A related to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide.
The Center for Disease Control (now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) verified the findings and informed both the World Health Organization and the state of New Jersey. On February 13, CDC Director David Sencer completed a memo calling for mass vaccination for the swine flu.
The CDC Assistant Director for Programs of the Center for Disease Control, Bruce Dull, held a press conference on February 19 to discuss the flu outbreak at Fort Dix and, in response to questions from reporters, mentioned the relationship of the flu strain to the 1918 outbreak.
US President Gerald Ford was officially informed of the outbreak memo on March 15 and the suggested vaccination program. He met with a “blue ribbon” panel that included Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Ford then made a televised announcement in support of the mass vaccination program.
A hearing was held before the United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, and C. Joseph Stetler, a drug company spokesman, requested government indemnity for the vaccine manufacturers.
Pharmaceutical companies Sharp & Dohme (Merck & Co.), Merrell, Wyeth, and Parke-Davis also refused to sell doses to the government unless they were guaranteed a profit, a concession that the government also eventually made.
The House Appropriations Committee reported out a special appropriations bill, including $135 million for the swine flu vaccination program, which was approved on April 5. Two days later, the World Health Organization held a conference to discuss the implications of a swine flu outbreak for poorer nations.
Assistant Secretary Theodore Cooper (HEW) informed the White House on June 2 that indemnity legislation would be needed to secure Merrell’s cooperation. In June, other vaccine manufacturers requested the same legislation. A little more than two weeks later, the Ford administration submitted a proposal to Congress that offered indemnity to vaccine manufacturers.
Later that month, J. Anthony Morris, a researcher in the Food and Drug Administration’s Bureau of Biologics (BoB), was dismissed for insubordination and went public with findings that cast doubt on the safety of the vaccine, which was produced in fertilised hen’s eggs.
Three days later, several manufacturers announced that they had ceased production of the vaccine. Later that month, investigations into alleged swine flu outbreaks in other parts of the world found no cases of the strain. On July 23, the President sent a letter that urged Congress to take action on indemnification.
In early August, an outbreak of illness in Philadelphia was thought to be related to swine flu. It was later found to be an atypical pneumonia that is now called Legionnaires’ disease. On August 6, Ford held a press conference and urged Congress to take action on the indemnification legislation. Four days later, both houses of Congress passed the legislation.
By 15 December, cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) affecting vaccinated patients were reported in 10 states, including Minnesota, Maryland, and Alabama. Three more cases of Guillain-Barré were reported in early December, and the investigation into cases of it spread to eleven states.
On December 16, a one-month suspension of the vaccination program was announced by Sencer. William Foege of the CDC estimated that the incidence of GBS was four times higher in vaccinated people than in those not receiving the swine flu vaccine.