Ethics of Military Drug Testing Questioned; Degree of 'Voluntary' Participation Raises Concerns

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Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Colombian and Indonesian troops have been drafted to test new anti-malaria drugs. South African researchers used Tanzanian soldiers to study the effectiveness of an unorthodox treatment for HIV/AIDS.

And a trial conducted on some 2,000 Nepalese soldiers for a new hepatitis-E vaccine by a major U.S. drug company sparked public protests and complaints that the Nepalese troops were being used as human guinea pigs.

An investigation by The Washington Times and ABC News, which on Tuesday reported a troubled U.S. government program using military veterans to test potentially dangerous drugs, has focused new attention on what medical ethicists say is an especially difficult problem. The U.S. military is not the only one that has had to deal with the consequences.

Military personnel and veterans represent two particularly tempting populations for medical study, researchers say. A large sample of participants, complete with detailed medical histories and personal data, can be quickly assembled. Their behavior, travel and personal habits are far easier to control during the study period.

But that high level of control also makes military medical testing a moral minefield, ethicists say. Just how much freedom does a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine in the ranks have to refuse to participate in a medical trial when asked by a superior officer?

"Considering that the majority of defense-related research is 'non-therapeutic' and ... is typically carried out on healthy volunteers, the standard of legal consent is high," according to recent study of military medical issues by lawyer Ashley R Melson. …