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U.S. military slowing anthrax vaccinations

WASHINGTON, - The U.S. military is temporarily slowing its program to inoculate all 2.4 million active and reserve troops against deadly anthrax biological agent because of a shortage in vaccine, Defense Secretary William Cohen said on Monday. But Cohen also said the Defense Department will push to at least continue vaccinating all troops headed for high risk areas such as the Gulf and South Korea until a new plant, already built to produce the vaccine, is certified by the Food and Drug Administration.

The key problem is that the plant completed in Lansing, Mich., last year by BioPort Corp. to make fresh anthrax vaccine, has not been approved by the FDA to begin production. Meanwhile, stored supplies of fully-tested vaccine are running short.

"Unfortunately, we are beginning to run low on tested and certified doses from the stockpile, forcing us to slow our vaccination efforts," Cohen said in a statement on the Defense Department website.

"As soon as a sufficient supply of effective and safe vaccine is available, we will expand the program, ultimately vaccinating all members of the active and reserve force," the secretary added.

About 455,000 out of 2.4 million U.S. active and reserve troops have been inoculated to date in a controversial and mandatory two-year-old program. But the FDA last year found at least 30 problems at the new BioPort plant and has not yet given approval for it to begin production.

Meanwhile, no anthrax vaccine is being produced in the United States.

"Details are still being worked out," on the new pace of the program, which has been using about 4,500 doses daily, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters on Friday.

Cohen told reporters travelling with him on a trip to China on Monday that his recommendation would be to continue top priority for shots to those deployed to Southwest Asia and South Korea, which "should carry us through the end of the year, hopefully."

The Pentagon said last week that the military might have to quickly slow down a mandatory program to inoculate all troops against anthrax.

Since the program was begun, 1.8 million doses have been used by the military and 455,000 troops have received at least one of a series of three anthrax vaccinations to provide protection against a deadly biological agent for which there is no known cure.

The program has been controversial, with small numbers of troops being punished for refusing to take the shots. Some critics in Congress have called for a halt until the shots are proved to be completely safe.

But Cohen emphasized again in his website message that the vaccine had been proven safe and noted that both he and Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had taken the series of shots to prove it.

"We put safety first when we started the vaccination program two years ago. I am putting safety first again today," he said.

While the Defense Department has hundreds of thousands of older doses of anthrax vaccine in storage, Cohen has demanded stringent, time-consuming inspection of that supply before it is used.

A department spokesman said last week that the military had only about 190,000 approved doses on hand - a 42-day supply at the previous pace of inoculations - and was testing another 194,000 doses in storage for purity and safety.