- Thousands of british and american troops
have been sent to the Gulf equipped with anthrax vaccines and antibiotics
that may not work, experts are warning.
- The UN suspects that Iraq can still launch
anthrax on missiles, despite Baghdad's claim that this capacity was destroyed
in 1991. Britain and the US are no longer routinely vaccinating their troops
against anthrax, but soldiers still carry vaccines and antibiotics in case
of a real or threatened attack, and in July the US intends to start vaccinating
2.4 million military personnel.
- American forces use a vaccine called
MDPH, named after the Michigan Department of Public Health vaccine plant
that makes it. The British vaccine is similar. Both immunise against a
protein in anthrax toxin called protective antigen. But Meryl Nass of Physicians
for Social Responsibility, an American pressure group, says research shows
that the vaccines may not protect against all natural strains of anthrax.
- In experiments on guinea pigs, for example,
MDPH gave 100 per cent protection against only one of the five main natural
strains of anthrax. In some studies, anthrax killed between 25 per cent
and 96 per cent of guinea pigs that had been immunised with MDPH. Jack
Melling of the Salk Institute in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, and former head
of Britain's defence vaccine development at Porton Down in Wiltshire says
that primates may be less susceptible.
- So far, MDPH has been tested only with
natural strains of anthrax. Soldiers in the Gulf could face even worse.
In December, Andrey Pomerantsev of the State Scientific Centre of Applied
Microbiology at Obolensk near Moscow published details of an anthrax strain
that he had genetically engineered to produce bacterial toxins called cereolysins.
Melling warns that MDPH might not protect against this Russian strain.
Arthur Friedlander, head of bacteriology at the US Army Medical Research
Institute for Infectious Diseases in Maryland, says: "We are now trying
to get hold of this strain to test it against our vaccine."
- If Iraq were to launch anthrax weapons
against unvaccinated troops, they would have to rely on antibiotics to
keep them alive. But Nass says that airborne anthrax spores often attack
too fast for antibiotics to work. Moreover, Pomerantsev has developed a
strain of anthrax that resists six different antibiotics, and experts fear
that Iraq may have acquired it. "Iraq could even have made its own,"
- The UN Special Commission set up to investigate
Iraq's biological weapons has found records of Russian sales of biological
equipment and materials to Iraq as late as 1995. Pomerantsev's strains,
says Melling, were probably developed before 1991, when funding for the
Obolensk laboratory dried up.
- The search for better anthrax vaccines
is hampered by the difficulty of testing them on humans. As Melling points
out, hardly anyone in the West is now naturally exposed to anthrax, and
it is unacceptable to expose people deliberately. This, he says, is why
British and American troops are still using a vaccine that was developed
in the 1960s, when workers in wool factories were still exposed to anthrax
- To make matters worse, the US Food and
Drug Administration threatened last year to revoke the licence of the plant
that makes MDPH because of sloppy production methods. The threat was withdrawn
under military pressure.