Friday, July 08, 2005

Anthrax vaccine: "No, thanks."

While we may have no vaccine for influenza, a contagious disease that is a likely public health threat, we have plenty of anthrax vaccine for the military. Of course the supposed beneficiaries aren't exactly lining up to get it, even though it's free. Global Security Newswire reports that half of the military and civilian personnel offered the vaccine said "no thanks."

Of 14,000 personnel offered anthrax vaccine, about 7000 have refused it. That's what happens when you make it voluntary instead of forcing people to be vaccinated for anthrax. They just don't know what's good for them. So the military is seeking to force vaccination once again, a practice that began just before the Iraq invasion in 2003 and was stopped by court order in October 2004. The Court found that military use to protect against inhalation anthrax (as opposed to cutaneous anthrax) was unsupported and hence was an unlicensed use. The military has applied to the FDA for new licensing provisions, with a decision expected soon (does anyone have any doubt about the outcome from an Agency that has shown itself to be "just following orders"?).

Service personnel are concerned about side effects. The military has said that the vaccine is as safe as other commonly used vaccines (although those are vaccines for diseases you might actually get, which changes the risk - benefit calculus a bit). Apparently soldiers and civilian personnel don't believe them. Now isn't that strange!

Meanwhile the first contract under the pharmaceutical give-away law called the Project BioShield Act of 2004 went to a small California company (VaxGen) to make 75 million doses of anthrax vaccine at a cost to taxpayers of $877.5 million. VaxGen's only other product had failed miserably and it had no experience in making a recombinant vaccine. What would anyone want 75 million doses (enough for 25 million courses of treatment) for? Beats me. Anthrax is not a contagious disease so you don't use it prophylactically in the civilian population, for whom its only use would be post exposure. No conceivable bioterrorist scenario would expose a total of 25 million people.

VaxGen, of course, is glad to be rescued from its almost certain demise:
“We are honored to play such an important role in our nation's defense,” said Lance K. Gordon, Ph.D., VaxGen's President and Chief Executive Officer. “The spirit of cooperation that we enjoyed with various branches of government is a tribute to the commitment that we all feel toward strengthening America's biodefense. I would particularly like to thank the Department of Health and Human Services, and, more specifically, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as well as the Administration and members of Congress from both parties for their leadership in calling for improved biodefense measures.”
What kind of cooperation do you think VaxGen referring to? I'm guessing the vaccine is also effective for itchy palm disease.