‘A lightning rod for the disaffected’: TGA staff receive death threats and abusive messages

John Skerritt is the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

John Skerritt is the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Photo: AAP

Staff at the national drug regulator have received death threats and harassing phone calls from anonymous individuals as anti-vaxxers ramp up their campaign against health authorities.

Employees of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – the government agency responsible for approving COVID-19 vaccines in Australia – have been sent images of gallows and are now worried their family members could be targeted next as officials warn of “a new level” to the harassment aimed at them.

The reports come after LNP MP George Christensen urged his followers on encrypted messaging service Telegram to “phone the TGA” and “demand they reverse their decision to ban doctors from prescribing ivermectin off-label”.

Terry Slevin, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, told The New Daily the personal threats had reached “a new level” and certain figures “in the political sphere” might be encouraging the culprits.

He said “death threats” had been made.

“They’re circulating mobile numbers of senior people in the organisation and encouraging their supporters to make threatening calls – they’re sending things by various channels, images involving gallows and various other ghoulish kinds of behaviour,” Mr Slevin said.

“There are people who are feeling genuinely threatened by this and it really must stop.”

Anti-vaxxers and lockdown protesters

The harassment relates to a slew of grievances, including the TGA’s approval of multiple COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions it has placed on prescribing the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin, which some Australians have been self-administering against the advice of health authorities.

Other individuals sending threats appear to be anti-lockdown protesters who don’t know where else to direct their frustration.

“Unfortunately, there’s been various efforts of people to draw attention to the responsibilities and the decisions being made by the TGA,” Mr Slevin told TND.

“It seems to have become a lightning rod for the disaffected.”

Mr Slevin said staff at the TGA had told him their colleagues had received threatening phone calls, emails and letters.

Staff said one person claimed to have been sent a photo of gallows.

Many are now worried that their family members could be targeted in future.

Public health leaders speak out

On Tuesday, peak body the Public Health Association of Australia issued a joint statement with 27 medical organisations and more than 60 leading scientists to condemn the harassment.

Among the signatory organisations are the Burnet Institute, the Doherty Institute, the Kirby Institute, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

“Now is a time when Australians must have confidence in the assessments and recommendations of the TGA, and we believe Australians’ trust in the TGA is well placed,” they said.

“Recent report of threats, intimidation and harassment aimed at TGA leadership and staff are a reason for serious concern and is an unacceptable development.”

Mr Slevin told TND TGA workers already had a lot on their plate as it is.

“This is about looking after the people who are at the pointy end, in terms of leadership of this pandemic, and trying to allow them to get on and do their job in an unharassed and safe manner,” he said.

“It’s tough enough as it is without adding this to the fight.”

Politicians feud with the TGA

Mr Slevin wanted to give no airtime to anyone who might be behind the threats, but noted “some people who have a substantial public reach decided to encourage that kind of behaviour, and that’s probably the most despicable act”.

Queensland MP George Christensen has repeatedly encouraged his supporters to ring the TGA’s main office and complain about the restriction of Ivermectin, which has not been approved by any major health authority as a COVID-19 treatment.

George Christensen's Telegram

George Christensen encouraged his Telegram followers to phone the TGA about Ivermectin.

He shared the TGA’s public phone number multiple times on encrypted messaging service Telegram.

There is no suggestion he condoned or encouraged the abuse of TGA staff.

“I’ve organised a phone-in protest as a result of this decision,” Mr Christensen wrote in one Telegram message on September 13, just days after the administration placed restrictions on Ivermectin.

“The TGA will probably get a few calls tomorrow as a result.

“I hope the phones are well staffed there.”

The uptick in threats also coincides with mining magnate-turned-politician Clive Palmer’s campaign against vaccines in favour of drugs like Ivermectin.

The TGA has sought legal advice over the use of its name in mass text messages sent out by federal MP Craig Kelly, who is a member of Mr Palmer’s United Australia Party.

The administration’s lawyers have also demanded that the UAP stop including incomplete snippets of adverse reaction reports in anti-vax material.

The Department of Health, which oversees the TGA, did not respond to requests for comment.

But the TGA said in a statement last week that it believed the incomplete snippets disseminated by Mr Palmer’s UAP could be “seriously misleading”.

Additional reporting by Josh Butler

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