President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen attends a meeting of the College of Commissioners at EU headquarters in Brussels, on December 8, 2021. ( POOL / AFP / Olivier Matthys)

False claims on Ursula von der Leyen's vaccine remarks spread online

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Social media posts and online articles claim European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for scrapping the Nuremberg Code and forcing people to receive a Covid-19 vaccination. But she made no mention of the Nuremberg Code when questioned about moves to require vaccination in some European countries, instead suggesting a "discussion" and "common approach" to implementing policies.

"SHOCKING: In the wake of Austria's drastic lockdown of unvaccinated people, EU chief calls for throwing out Nuremberg Code," says a December 4, 2021 Instagram post that shares a screenshot of a December 2 article from The Post Millennial.

Screenshot taken on December 8, 2021 showing an Instagram post

That article has since been updated, but others with similar headlines as well as posts making the same claim have been circulating in English on Twitter and Facebook, and in French, Polish and German.

But the European Commission president did not mention the Nuremberg Code or call for "throwing it out."

The claim stems from a December 1 press conference during which von der Leyen answered reporters' questions about challenges posed by Covid-19 outbreaks on the continent and the new Omicron variant.

She did urge member states to discuss mandatory vaccination, but made clear that it was merely her personal opinion: the Commission cannot impose such a policy on sovereign member states.

Austria became the first EU country to mandate vaccination, and Germany is considering a similar policy. In early December 2021, the World Health Organization in Europe warned that such a move should only be used as a "last resort."

Asked by a journalist (at the 12:49 mark in the video) about the 100 euro monthly fine that will be imposed on unvaccinated individuals aged over 60 in Greece, the European Commission president replied: "First of all, this is pure member state competence. Therefore, in respect to that, it's not me to give any kind of recommendation."

She then shared her "personal position," saying: "Two or three years ago, I would never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere, and thus this is an enormous health cost coming along.

"One third of the European population is not vaccinated, these are 150 million people, this is a lot. Not each and every one can be vaccinated... But the vast majority could. Therefore, I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union. This needs discussion, this needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be led."

Contacted by AFP on December 6, Stefan de Keersmaecker, a spokesman of the European Commission in charge of health issues, said that von der Leyen "only gave her personal opinion on mandatory vaccination at this press conference on December 1." He emphasized that she "did not talk at all" about the Nuremberg Code.

"I am not aware of any other opportunities where she could have referred to this code as part of the vaccination policy," he added.

Nuremberg Code misinformation

The Nuremberg Military Tribunals, held between November 1945 and October 1946, included the USA vs Karl Brandt, in which 23 doctors and administrators were prosecuted for their roles in conducting medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. The verdict featured a detailed description of "Permissible Medical Experiments."

These 10 points became known as the Nuremberg Code, which is a set of guiding principles for medical ethics.

During the pandemic, online commentary has claimed that the Covid-19 vaccines are "experimental" and therefore in violation of the Code, but the shots have been tested and their side-effects are carefully monitored.

"The Nuremberg Code is about doing human experiments, not vaccination," Jonathan Moreno, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told AFP for a previous fact-check.

"The Nuremberg Code is perfectly compatible with vaccination," he added.

Steven Joffe, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, also said at the time that "vaccines are in no way a violation of the Nuremberg Code."

AFP has fact-checked hundreds of inaccurate claims about vaccines and Covid-19.

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