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Updated: Friday, Feb. 18, 2000 at 01:19 CST
House subcommittee seeks halt in Anthrax vaccinations for military By Steven Lee Myers c.2000 N.Y. Times News Service
WASHINGTON -- A House subcommittee released a scalding critique Thursday of the Pentagon's effort to vaccinate American troops against the biological agent anthrax, and said the program should be suspended.
The subcommittee said the anthrax vaccination program relied on incomplete, outdated science and suffered from poor planning, and said no members of the military should be given the shots until questions about their effectiveness and adverse side-effects were answered. Acknowledging intelligence warnings of the possibility of an attack with anthrax, it recommended that the Pentagon speed research for a safer vaccine.
The report, prepared by the national security subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Reform, dealt another blow to the Pentagon's anthrax program, which has faced delays, cost overruns and resistance from some service members.
The report's recommendations, which came after a yearlong review, are not binding, but they could give momentum to efforts in Congress to force a halt to the vaccinations. In the wake of growing protests from service members who have refused to take the shots, House members have proposed legislation that would make the program voluntary or suspend it until the National Institutes of Health completed a study.
"It looked early on that this might actually be a solution," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., referring to the vaccination program. "But the more you dig into this, the more you realize this is more of a political solution than a substantive medical solution to the question of chemical and biological technology."
At the Pentagon Thursday, senior officials defended the program, saying the questions raised by the House members would not stop the vaccinations of troops against the possibility of attack from one of the deadliest known biological weapons. Anthrax spores, if inhaled, can cause an infectious disease that can kill within days.
"We have a very safe and effective vaccine against a very deadly biologic agent that we know to be in the hands of many of our adversaries and could be used against our forces," said Dr. Sue Bailey, a physician who is assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
Although no country has ever used anthrax in battle, intelligence reports have indicated that at least 10 countries, including Iraq and North Korea, have the ability to make biological weapons. That prompted an order in 1997 from Secretary of Defense William Cohen that all 2.4 million active and reserve troops be vaccinated. The first vaccinations -- a series of six shots over 18 months, followed by annual boosters -- began the next year.
The vaccinations have been controversial from the start. The Pentagon says at least 350 service members, including many in the National Guard and Reserves, have balked at taking the shots, though critics say that number underestimates those who have left service because of concerns about the vaccine.
While the Pentagon insists those who have balked represented only a fraction of the 400,000 who have received at least one shot, the resistance has proved embarrassing, leading to courts-martial and discharges. On Wednesday, the Air Force avoided its first court-martial of an officer for refusing the vaccine when Maj. Sonnie G. Bates, a pilot at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, agreed to face a lesser administrative review, which is likely to end in a discharge.
The subcommittee's report said that while the Pentagon's program was well intentioned, it was based on "an excess of faith but a paucity of science," and had raised serious doubts among service members, doubts that were hurting recruiting and retention.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the vaccine in 1970, primarily for people who worked with cattle or sheep, which can pass the bacterium through the human skin. But the report said the vaccine was never proven effective against airborne spores, which is how anthrax would be used as a weapon.
The subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said that without more studies, the vaccination should be treated as an experimental drug, which would require an individual to consent to the shots.
The report cited fevers, muscle aches and other flu-like symptoms that soldiers have experienced after receiving the anthrax shots, saying the Pentagon had not thoroughly studied the vaccine's side effects.
Bailey said Thursday that there had been 600 reports of adverse reactions, and 70 of those made people sick enough to be out of work for a day or hospitalized. She said the percentage of symptoms was in line with side effects from other vaccines.
The subcommittee criticized the Pentagon's support for the only manufacturer of the vaccine, the Bioport Corp. of Lansing, Mich. After Bioport took over the production of anthrax from a state laboratory, the Pentagon had to nearly double its $29 million contract for the vaccine because the company had underestimated its costs.
In December, the Pentagon halted a planned expansion of the vaccinations because the FDA could not approve Bioport's new production facility. Troops deploying to places where an anthrax attack is considered possible -- including the Persian Gulf and Korea -- are still receiving the shots, but the problems at Bioport have delayed plans to vaccinate all 2.4 million service members.
Distributed by The Associated Press (AP)
-- mike in houston (firstname.lastname@example.org), February 18, 2000