Sad Truth About U.S.
Military Anthrax Vaccine
By Debora MacKenzie, Brussels
From New Scientist Planet Science,
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," says Melling.
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 from sheep.
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.

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