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Florida's Supreme Court impanels a grand jury on COVID vaccines

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested the grand jury probe would be in part aimed to jog loose more information from pharmaceutical companies about the vaccines and potential side effects.

Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta was appointed to preside over the panel, which will convene for a year. Grand jury members will be drawn from five judicial circuits.

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved a request by Gov. Ron DeSantis to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate alleged wrongdoing related to COVID-19 vaccines.

The Supreme Court issued an order that impaneled a grand jury for a year and appointed Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta to preside over it. Grand jury members will be drawn from five judicial circuits.

The approval came after DeSantis on Dec. 13 submitted a request that alleged “there are good and sufficient reasons to deem it to be in the public interest to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate criminal or wrongful activity in Florida relating to the development, promotion, and distribution of vaccines purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms, and transmission.”

Chief Justice Carlos Muniz and Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, John Couriel and Jamie Grosshans supported DeSantis’ request, while Justice Jorge Labarga opposed it, according to the order. Justice Renatha Francis did not take part.

While DeSantis promoted vaccinating people, particularly seniors, after the drugs became available in 2020, he later became a high-profile opponent of vaccination mandates and has raised questions about the effectiveness of the shots.

State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, who was appointed last year by DeSantis, also has drawn controversy for his positions on the vaccines. For example, he issued guidance in March that said the risks of providing COVID-19 vaccines to healthy children could be greater than the benefits — contrary to guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says parents should get their children vaccinated.

DeSantis’ request for a statewide grand jury focused, in part, on statements by drug companies and federal officials that the vaccines would prevent transmission of COVID-19.

“Florida law prohibits fraudulent practices, including the dissemination of false or misleading advertisements of a drug and the use of any representation or suggestion in any advertisement relating to a drug that an application of a drug is effective when it is not,” the request said. “The pharmaceutical industry has a notorious history of misleading the public for financial gain. Questions have been raised regarding the veracity of the representations made by the pharmaceutical manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly with respect to transmission, prevention, efficacy, and safety. An investigation is warranted to determine whether the pharmaceutical industry has engaged in fraudulent practices.”

DeSantis, who is widely considered a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has tapped into vaccine skepticism that is shared by many conservative voters. But his request for a grand jury also has drawn criticism, with opponents saying vaccines help save lives.

During an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said “we shouldn't undermine science, we shouldn't undermine the medical community that's very important to our public health.”

“During the pandemic, things change from time to time,” Hutchinson said. “We had more information. So, we had to adjust. And that's what leaders do. But I don't think it's good to go back, whether you're going back to the 2020 election or whether you're going back and trying to re-litigate everything that happened during the pandemic.”

Also, while DeSantis has focused on issues about transmission, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinations help prevent serious illnesses and deaths from COVID-19.

“COVID 19-vaccines are effective at protecting people from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and dying,” the federal agency says on its website. “Vaccination remains the safest strategy for avoiding hospitalizations, long-term health outcomes and death.”

Thursday’s Supreme Court order said the grand jury will look at people and “entities, including, but not limited to, pharmaceutical manufacturers (and their executive officers) and other medical associations or organizations involved in the design, development, clinical testing or investigation, manufacture, marketing, representation, advertising, promotion, labeling, distribution, formulation, packing, sale, purchase, donation, dispensing, prescribing, administration, or use of vaccines purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms, and transmission.”

News Service staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.