Gerald Ford and the Swine flu panic of 1976

An Ordinary Man: The Surprising Life and Historic Presidency of Gerald R. Ford reminds us of the 1976 panic regarding a respiratory virus: a strain of influenza called “swine flu”. This was the genesis of the modern muscular CDC. Congress appropriated $500 million in pre-Carter/pre-Biden dollars. The CDC said that every American should get vaccinated (Republican Ford publicly accepted the sacrament; Democrat Jimmy Carter refused it). The vaccine was rushed to the market, greatly enriching four pharma companies who also were indemnified from any liability. This indemnification turned out to be useful. The vaccine was at least 10X more likely to cause Guillain-Barré Syndrome (paralysis) than it was to protect the injected person from death due to influenza (contemporary CDC page on the subject).

Abram Saperstein, who changed his name to Albert Sabin, was recruited to sell the idea of universal vaccination. Sabin was famous at the time for having created the oral polio vaccine. After a few months, however, Sabin concluded that the rushed-to-market swine flu vaccine was more likely to harm than help and that a 1918-style epidemic was unlikely.

Speaking of Jimmy Carter, the book notes that his campaign promises were similar to Javier “Chainsaw” Milei’s in Argentina. Candidate Carter promised to reduce the number of federal agencies from 1,900 to 200, for example. What did President Carter deliver? A brand new Cabinet-level Department of Education that kicked off decades of tuition inflation at American colleges and universities via subsidized student loans and grants.

Personal health anecdote: Following the example of Jimmy Carter, the greatest president in our nation’s history, I ignored CVS’s constant reminders of flu vaccine availability. In early January, embedded in Boston with the nation’s smartest and most assiduous mask and vaccine Karens, I got a truly horrible cough/flu. I cursed myself for ignoring CDC advice. After limping home on JetBlue (I actually wore a mask in hopes of protecting fellow passengers!) I went to a German-trained physician here in Palm Beach County and tested negative for both COVID and influenza.


  • “The Effect of Influenza Vaccination for the Elderly on Hospitalization and Mortality” (Anderson, et al. 2020; Annals of Internal Medicine): “Turning 65 [the age at which people in the UK become eligible for flu vaccines from the NHS] was associated with a statistically and clinically significant increase in rate of seasonal influenza vaccination. However, no evidence indicated that vaccination reduced hospitalizations or mortality among elderly persons” (in other words, the flu shot might help some people avoid a brief illness, but it doesn’t reduce the chance of being killed by the flu)
  • “Carter’s Flu‐Shot Plan For the Ill and Elderly Termed Short of Goal” (NYT, 1979): [the CDC director] also defended the program against criticism by Dr. Albert B. Sabin, who developed the oral vaccine for polio. Dr. Sabin, who is associated with the Medical University of South Carolina, said that he did not believe that the influenza vaccine would help many people because new virus strains kept cropping up. and required changes in immunization formulas. He said that vaccines containing major new strains became available only after the new strains already had their major impact.

11 thoughts on “Gerald Ford and the Swine flu panic of 1976

  1. Ralph Bellamy plays the avuncular but untrustworthy Dr Abe Sapirstein in Rosemary’s Baby. I presume this is some kind of in-joke about Albert Sabin but I can’t find any evidence.

  2. History of the flu shot:

    > The CDC’s decision to play up flu deaths dates back to 2003, when it realized the public wasn’t following its advice on the flu vaccine. “The manufacturers were telling us that they weren’t receiving a lot of orders for vaccine,” Dr. Glen Nowak, associate director for communications at CDC’s National Immunization Program, told National Public Radio. “It really did look like we needed to do something to encourage people to get a flu shot.” … So the CDC created the term “influenza-related deaths” (not “influenza-caused”) to include ANY deaths where the flu MAY have been a factor. Using this new loose definition, CDC’s computer models could tally people who died of a heart ailment or other causes after having the flu … Back in 2001 only 18 death certificates positively identified the cause as flu … the CDC now says there on average 36,000 “influenza-related” deaths per year.


  3. CBS’s 60 minutes had an interesting review, including the lies, including:

    * The vaccine injected was different from the one tested,

    * That celebrities including Mary Taylor Moore received the sacrament: Ms. Moore is interviewed that she refused the shot against her physician’s advice.

    * Husband of a Guiaunne Barre syndrome “I will not take another shot that my government tells me to take.”

    • Is Disease X where you name everything around you (dogs, kids, companies, etc.) “X”? If so, Elon Musk has a terrible case! I don’t think that I do, since Mindy the Crippler (still celebrating National Golden Retriever Day) is never referred to as “X”. And our kids have names that were at least reasonably common in the English language 200 years ago. (If a kid has a weird name that tells me something about the parents! They must imagine that they are so unusual and great that their babies will grow up to be unusual and great and, therefore, cannot be named “Bob” or “Susan”.)

  4. “Congress appropriated $500 billion in pre-Carter/pre-Biden dollars” is it true? I think that in 1976 US GDP/GNI were both under $2 trillion dollars. Can it be that failed vaccination program costed greater then 1/4 th of entire GDP, during cold war and Soviet arms race? How would hall of fame in government wastefulness achievement escape libertarian hate propaganda machine? Maybe it is $500 billion in bidies?

    • perplexed: I fixed it! I’m pretty sure that it was $500 million (I’m listening as an audiobook so I had to look at some other sources). $500 billion per year is how much low-skill immigration transferred from the working class to the elite 10 years ago (see ) and is plainly far too much for a 1970s public health panic (though we spent $10-20 trillion on coronapanic and are not done with the spending yet given the continued economic disruption, people who went on disability and will never get off, K-12 students who will never make up for what they lost when their schools were closed for 12-18 months and who therefore will end up on a lifetime of welfare, etc.).

  5. > Abram Saperstein, who changed his name to Albert Sabin, was recruited to sell the idea of universal vaccination.

    Born in Bialystock, then in Russia.

    In a related note, Frank Gehry, who is still alive at 94, was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto.

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