The Nuremberg Code specifically addresses experimentation; COVID-19 vaccines aren’t experimental, and therefore, don’t violate the Code
The Nuremberg Code is a list of ten principles guiding research ethics for experiments involving human subjects. As such, the Nuremberg Code specifically addresses experimentation on human subjects. It doesn’t apply to the use of authorized vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccines which aren’t experimental. Additionally, COVID-19 vaccination isn’t mandatory in the U.S., but employers and schools can require specific vaccines from employees and students. In both cases, exceptions are made for individuals who cannot receive the vaccines for medical reasons.
Inaccurate: Created in 1947 during a trial of Nazi doctors that conducted experiments on concentration camp prisoners, the Nuremberg Code specifically addresses experimentation on human subjects. As such, they don’t address COVID-19 vaccines that—having been authorized by health agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—are not experimental.
Misleading: COVID-19 vaccination isn’t mandatory in the U.S. Employers or schools may require specific vaccines, but this is not a new phenomenon. All 50 U.S. states require specific vaccines from students enrolling in public school and, in the U.S., employers can also require specific vaccines. In both cases, exemptions and accommodations are made for those who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons. In some states, vaccine exemptions are also allowed for religious reasons.
In June 2021, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed a lawsuit brought by 117 employees of the Houston Methodist Hospital system who claimed the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement violated the Nuremberg Code. The employees also compared the threat of termination unless they take the COVID-19 vaccines to forced medical experimentation conducted by the Nazi doctors; a comparison Judge Hughes called “reprehensible”.
Though one of the more high-profile examples of individuals calling vaccine requirements a Nuremberg Code violation, the 117 employees aren’t the only ones to incorrectly make this claim. Similar claims involving the Nuremberg Code and COVID-19 vaccines have circulated and been fact-checked before, as shown here, here and here. These claims have also been fact-checked in other languages, including Spanish and French.
On 7 July 2021, talk show host Candace Owens posted a tweet, which she then shared on Facebook, saying that the “Nuremberg codes [sic] stipulate that consent must be voluntary”, and due to COVID-19 vaccine requirements to attend school, work and travel, “voluntary consent is not given”. As such, Owens claimed that the Nuremberg Code was being violated in such cases. She also called the COVID-19 vaccines experimental. As we’ll show below, the COVID-19 vaccines don’t violate the Nuremberg Code, which is related to medical experimentation on human subjects, not the use of authorized vaccines.
The Nuremberg Code
The Nuremberg Code is a list of 10 principles guiding research ethics for experiments involving human subjects. The Code was created in 1947 in Nuremberg, Germany, during the Doctors’ Trial, at which Nazi doctors, accused of conducting horrifying human experiments on concentration camp prisoners, were judged. Of the 23 physicians and scientists in the trial, 16 were found guilty.
The first of the 10 principles states that “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential”. The other nine principles concern other aspects of the research experiments, such as how they must “yield fruitful results for the good of society”, and must be “conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering” and “only by scientifically qualified persons”. You can read the complete Nuremberg Code here.
One example of a research study that violated the Nuremberg Code was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. In order to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis” in black men, researchers recruited 600 African American men in Alabama, two-thirds of which had syphilis. Despite penicillin-based treatment becoming available by the mid-1940s, the researchers didn’t provide such treatment to the participants; instead, they provided ineffective medicines, like ointments, so that the recruited subjects would believe that they were receiving treatment. By the time the study ended, after a front-page report in the New York Times, 128 participants had died of syphilis.
COVID-19 vaccines and the Nuremberg Code
There are two arguments put forth by individuals who claim the COVID-19 vaccines violate the Nuremberg Code.
The first is that the vaccines are experimental, and therefore individuals receiving them are human subjects in an experiment. This isn’t true because the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t experimental. As we’ve shown in a previous Health Feedback claim review, the COVID-19 vaccines went through clinical trials and were “authorized for emergency use following a careful review of their benefits and potential risks”.
Speaking to Full Fact, a U.K. fact-checking organization, Aston University medical sociology and medical ethics researcher Alexis Paton said the Nuremberg Code is “very specifically about experimentation”. Participants in the COVID-19 vaccine phase III randomized clinical trials, for instance, read informed consent documents that provided information about the trials to ensure their voluntary participation. As such, while the 10 principles outlined in the Nuremberg Code apply to vaccine clinical trials, once a vaccine is authorized or approved, the Code is no longer relevant.
The second argument is that vaccine requirements, such as to enroll a child in public school (which is already in place, with all 50 U.S. states requiring specific vaccines from students) or to work at a hospital, violate the Nuremberg code because they are a form of coercion. This was one of the arguments put forth by the 117 employees of the Houston Methodist Hospital system who refused the COVID-19 vaccine. However, as Judge Hughes explained in his ruling:
“This is not coercion. Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else”.
Private businesses like the Houston Methodist Hospital system can require a vaccine, and vaccine requirements are not new for hospitals. For instance, in 2017, 61.4% of surveyed U.S. hospitals had influenza vaccination mandates for healthcare personnel. Furthermore, U.S. federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19,” with reasonable accommodations made for employees who cannot receive the vaccine. Such medical exemptions are part of vaccine requirements: all 50 U.S. states allow medical exemptions to students enrolling in public schools, and another 44 allow religious exemptions.
In terms of a federal mandate, though U.S. states have the legal authority to institute mandatory vaccinations, there are currently no plans to do so; on 5 December 2020, then-president-elect Joe Biden said COVID-19 vaccines wouldn’t be mandatory. Additionally, on 28 May 2021, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that “there will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential”.
In short, both arguments put forth by Owens and others as to why COVID-19 vaccines violate the Nuremberg Code are inaccurate. The first because the Nuremberg Code is concerned about experimental research and COVID-19 vaccines aren’t experimental. The second because COVID-19 vaccination in the U.S. isn’t mandatory, and specific vaccine requirements by schools and employers are legal.
- 1 – Shuster (1997) Fifty Years Later: The Significance of the Nuremberg Code. The Lancet.
- 2 – British Medical Journal (1996) The Nuremberg Code (1947). British Medical Journal.
- 3 – Emmanuel et al. (2021) Assessment of Length and Readability of Informed Consent Documents for COVID-19 Vaccine Trials. JAMA Network Open.
- 4 – Greene et al. (2018) Changes in Influenza Vaccination Requirements for Health Care Personnel in US Hospitals. JAMA Network Open.