In its war of words with opponents of the anthrax vaccine, the Pentagon has frequently found itself firing dud ammunition and even shooting itself in the foot.
When Defense Secretary William Cohen announced in December 1997 that the entire military — 2.4 million people on active duty or in the National Guard or Reserve — would be given the vaccine, military leaders said it was the best way to protect troops against the deadly livestock disease if it was used as a weapon.
Within days of the announcement, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that the Pentagon's own studies showed that even if everyone was vaccinated, it wouldn't provide perfect protection and it would be necessary to stockpile millions of doses of antibiotics — 30 to 45 days worth per person.
Pentagon leaders disputed the claim, but in early 1998 ordered the stockpiling of antibiotics.
The next problem was their announcement that the Michigan plant that made the vaccine was being shut down for renovations.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed that the Food and Drug Administration had repeatedly cited the plant for manufacturing violations and threatened to shut it down just before it was closed.
The Pentagon said all batches of vaccine would be tested by an outside contractor before they were issued for use.
But the testing ended up being done by the manufacturer, with the outside contractor just overseeing the process. So many batches failed that more than one million doses have been quarantined, to be used only in time of war.
Despite the problems, military leaders and spokesmen repeatedly claimed that the vaccine had a safety record stretching back to 1970, based on its use by veterinarians, wool workers and special operations forces.
But wool workers don't normally take the vaccine because, by the time it was approved, the animal vaccine had all but wiped out anthrax in the United States.
And a spokesman for Army Medical Command said last year that people
were misinterpreting the statement about veterinarians and admitted only
a small number of military veterinarians who worked with research animals
took the vaccine. That admission came after vaccine opponents conducted a national phone survey of veterinary schools and found no one who used
A few weeks later, an e-mail query by the News-Democrat to Army Special Operations Command brought the response that the command had “no records of the vaccine being administered” to any of the Rangers, Green Berets, Special Operations helicopter pilots and crews or Delta Force commandos under their command.
In fact, other than the thousands of troops who received one or more doses of the vaccine during the 1991 Gulf War — often without being told what it was — the only people who have regularly received the vaccine appear to be the people who work in the Michigan plant where it is made and biowarfare researchers who work with the anthrax bacteria at the U.S. Army Research Institute on Infectious Diseases and similar places.
The Pentagon also came under fire for reporting only a fraction of reactions to the vaccine. Last year, new studies showed that there were far more reactions than initially predicted and that women had about double the bad reactions of men.
Congress is considering bills to make the vaccination voluntary or halt it completely until it is certified safe.
And refurbishing the Michigan plant hasn't helped — the FDA again cited it for numerous problems and refused to approve any of the newly manufactured vaccine for release.
In December, the Pentagon announced that the vaccinations would be delayed for all except those deploying to high risk areas.
Originally Published, Feb. 7, 2000, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 2000, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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