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EDITORIAL - Time to end anthrax suit

Air Force Times

A lawsuit that challenges the military’s anthrax vaccine program is now well into its fourth year in court.

It’s time for the Pentagon to reach out and settle the case.

The vaccine became voluntary in late 2004 when U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan shut down the mandatory program, ruling that the Food and Drug Administration had failed to properly license the vaccine for use against the inhalation form of anthrax.

The FDA issued a final rule certifying the vaccine for such use last December. The Pentagon then appealed not only to have Sullivan’s injunction lifted, but to have the courts certify that the mandatory program had been legal all along. That’s a crucial point — if the courts rule that the old program was illegal, any troops who were punished for refusing an order to take the vaccine could petition to have their records corrected.

In February, an appeals court dissolved the injunction but sent the case back to Sullivan to decide whether the mandatory program was legal.

A hearing on that issue was scheduled in Sullivan’s court June 27 but was pushed back indefinitely at the government’s request, without explanation.

Meanwhile, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the Pentagon’s top health affairs official, seems downright blasé about when, or even if, the Pentagon might reinstate mandatory shots.

“We are reviewing our program,” is all he would say June 12. “No final decisions have been made.”

This is a curious lack of urgency coming from an agency that, until recently, issued strong and repeated assertions about the dire nature of the anthrax threat facing U.S. troops.

Many service members, both past and present, deserve resolution to this long, tired saga. Indeed, the Defense Department itself needs to move ahead one way or another — to settle on how such matters should be handled in the future.

It’s time to stop the foot-dragging and resolve this issue, once and for all.