GAO [United States. General Accounting Office]: Shots Led to Military Attrition: A New Report Again Raises Questions about the Safety of the Pentagon's Anthrax-Vaccine Program, Charging That It Has Cost the Military Valuable Service Personnel. (Nation: Anthrax Vaccine)

Article excerpt

When a scientist sent a letter to the president warning that the United States faced great danger from weapons of mass destruction it was his intent to encourage the administration to take precautionary measures. The letter writer was Albert Einstein. His warning to President Franklin Roosevelt on Oct. 11, 1939, came in the midst of an emerging threat from Nazi Germany. It paved the way for the Manhattan Project, a nuclear program to counter Germany's plan to build an atomic bomb.

Fourteen months ago another letter writer prompted the Bush administration to take precautionary measures against weapons of mass destruction. This time the writer added a lethal dose of anthrax that resulted in five deaths across the country and mass panic in the nation's capital. If the intent was to push or redirect policy concerning anthrax vaccination, the mission was accomplished. The attack put the Pentagon's anthrax-vaccination program back on track. The six-shot regime had been on the ropes after a series of congressional hearings and critical reports by Army Times and INSIGHT that questioned whether inoculating 2.4 million troops would do more harm than good.

As INSIGHT noted [see "A Dose of Reality," Sept. 20, 1999, and "Why BioPort Got a Shot in the Arm," Sept. 20, 1999], hundreds of reservists, including many trained pilots, had resigned rather than face a series of vaccinations that in some cases had resulted in service personnel contracting aseptic meningitis, Guillain-Barre syndrome and lupus.

The Pentagon and BioPort Corp., the sole provider of the anthrax vaccine, downplayed the risks and insisted all was safe. INSIGHT since has learned that in August 2001 senior Pentagon officials explored alternative methods of countering possible anthrax attacks, including developing better antibiotics to fight the virus. Had this occurred it would have finished BioPort, which had poured its resources into building a state-of-the-art facility in Lansing, Mich., to mass-produce anthrax vaccines for the military and eventually the public.

The program had been halted when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to approve a manufacturing license for BioPort. Even when the FDA finally gave the green light in January 2001, the Pentagon did not immediately roll out the program but continued to consider alternatives. The anthrax scare that began in October 2001 seemed to settle the matter but didn't. Not until May 2002 were vaccinations resumed even for a limited number of "at-risk" troops--nearly eight months after the anthrax attacks. And the identity of the troops receiving the vaccine remains a military secret. Now the Pentagon has announced that substantial quantities of vaccine will be manufactured and kept in reserve for civilian use in homeland security.

Meanwhile, the FBI has been claiming that the anthrax attacks probably were committed by a domestic terrorist with access to a military lab at Fort Detrick, Md. The FBI still refers to Steven Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the attacks, but he has not been charged. Hatfill is in fact a bio-defense scientist who worked at Fort Detrick, but he has been an outspoken critic of the nation's failure to develop defenses for biological and chemical attacks.

Hatfill warned INSIGHT in 1998 how easily a terrorist could shut down Washington with a single dose of anthrax. When this magazine recently asked for a follow-up interview, Hatfill attorney Victor M. Glasberg replied, "It's not going to happen." Hatfill did hold a series of controlled press conferences, proclaiming his innocence. "I went from being someone with pride in my work, pride in my profession, to being made into the biggest criminal of the 21st century for something I never touched. What I've been trying to contribute, my work, is finished. My life is destroyed."

While the FBI explores other leads, and victims of the attack continue to recover, the incident is far from forgotten. …