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U.S. Suspends Military Anthrax Vaccination Program

Global Security Newswire

The U.S. Defense Department last week announced that it would temporarily suspend its anthrax vaccination program, according to the New York Times (see GSN, Dec. 3).

The Pentagon’s decision followed a recent U.S. federal court ruling that military personnel cannot be forced to take the vaccine, the Times reported. Last Monday, Judge Emmett Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Pentagon from “inoculating service members without their consent” and ruled that the vaccine used by the Pentagon was “an investigational drug” being used for an unapproved purpose. Sullivan agreed with arguments that the vaccine had only been licensed to prevent the skin form of anthrax, not inhalational anthrax, the Times reported (Thom Shanker, New York Times, Dec. 24).

According to Assistant Defense Secretary William Winkenwerder, the judge’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in March by six anonymous service members. During a Dec. 23 Pentagon press briefing, Winkenwerder defended the anthrax vaccine.

“The anthrax vaccine is safe and effective, and it’s been licensed by the FDA since 1970. The Department of Defense has always complied with, and will continue to comply with all FDA requirements in its use of the anthrax vaccine,” he said.

Winkenwerder cited a March 2002 Institute of Medicine report, which said that the current anthrax vaccine is effective for preventing anthrax, including inhalational anthrax, in humans. He also countered Sullivan’s claim that the current vaccine had not been approved for use to prevent inhalational anthrax, saying, “it’s a licensed product against all forms of anthrax.”

“In summary, this court ruling is not supported by medical science or by medical facts. It challenges the conclusions of America’s best medical experts,” Winkenwerder said (U.S. Defense Department release, Dec. 23).

On Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion requesting that Sullivan withdraw his preliminary injunction against the Pentagon’s anthrax vaccination program, or to agree to limit the injunction to only the six plaintiffs in the March lawsuit, according to the New York Times.

The motion asks for a clarification as to whether the injunction only applies to the six plaintiffs. If not, then it asks that Sullivan reconsider the injunction because the suit was not filed on behalf of all U.S. military personnel, the Times reported.

“Plaintiffs never pursued this case as a class action,” the motion says. “An award of preliminary injunctive relief to anyone other than the six Doe plaintiffs before the court would be wholly without justification,” it says.

Mark Zaid, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers who provided a copy of the motion to the Times, said that while the motion was “understandable from the legal standpoint,” it was “completely absurd from a policy standpoint.”

“The vaccine as being used is experimental in nature and therefore unlawful unless informed consent is given,” Zaid said. “So to argue that this decision should only apply to those six individuals does a real injustice,” he said (Thom Shanker, New York Times, Dec. 27).