Sent naked into battle

July 26, 2000

Vaccination may not protect US soldiers from anthrax

PLANS to vaccinate all 2.4 million US military personnel against anthrax are in fresh trouble. Research notes from a crucial test of the vaccine in monkeys suggest that, while jabs may keep soldiers alive after an anthrax attack, they will become too sick to fight. This follows a damning report earlier this year, in which Congress called the plan a "medical Maginot Line" (New Scientist, 26 February, p 5). For most US troops, the problem is academic anyway, as the army has run out of vaccine.

George Robertson of BioReliance in Rockport, Maryland, a former vaccine researcher, has obtained lab records from monkey tests carried out in 1991 at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. In the study, rhesus monkeys were given a vaccine similar to the one used for the US troops, and then inhaled large doses of anthrax spores. Anthrax is too dangerous for this test to be carried out in humans.

The notes record that although the monkeys survived, they became sick for up to two weeks afterwards. Sick soldiers could be more of a burden on defending forces than dead ones.

"I'd rather be vaccinated if I was facing anthrax attack," says anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. "But if you inhale enough spores nothing can save you."

Soldiers may not get the choice. BioPort of Lansing, Michigan, the sole producer of the anthrax vaccine in the US, stopped making it after failing safety tests last December, and stocks have dwindled. Only 57 000 troops have so far got all four initial injections.
New Scientist issue: 29th July 2000


New Scientist

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