Field of Science

The anthrax vaccine boondoggle

The anthrax vaccine is a truly bad idea. The U.S. has wasted billions of dollars on it, and it just seems to go from bad to worse. Now a government panel has recommended that we test the vaccine on children, which raises a whole new array of ethical questions.

Don't get me wrong: vaccines are the greatest boon to public health of the last 200 years. We eradicated smallpox, we're close to eradicating polio, and childhood deaths from infectious diseases are far, far lower thanks to the vaccines we give our children. These are truly wondrous advances.

But the anthrax vaccine is different, from start to finish.
For starters, anthrax is not infectious. This might come as a surprise to those who've only heard about this through the media. An anthrax "outbreak" is impossible, because the B. anthracis bacterium cannot spread from person to person. Vaccines against diseases such as measles, mumps, and influenza protect millions of people each year, because these are common infectious diseases that spread easily between people.

Anthrax was never a public health threat, and it isn't one now. We don't need an anthrax vaccine. And by developing and then promoting one, the government is abusing the good will that the public has towards vaccines, possibly endangering the public health further by playing into the hands of the anti-vaccine movement.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend that children be vaccinated against anthrax. In fact, it doesn't recommend that anyone get routine vaccinations against anthrax:
"Vaccination is recommended only for those at high risk, such as workers in research laboratories that handle anthrax bacteria routinely."
The CDC recommendation makes sense. Therefore I was stunned to learn this week that the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) recommended that we launch an anthrax vaccine testing program in children (see page 37 of their report).

The NBSB report admits that
"Currently, U.S. children are not at immediate risk from anthrax and would not benefit directly from pre-event AVA [anthrax vaccine] administration."
It also states that
"There is no known benefit to vaccinating children in the absence of an imminent threat from exposure to B. anthracis other than potential future benefit."
Case closed, right? We can't conduct vaccine trials in children if there's no benefit.

Somehow, though, even after these statements in their own report, the NBSB managed to recommend testing the vaccine in children. As justification, they present this claim:
"Preparation for a national and potentially global threat from the use of B. anthracis spores by terrorists is a major priority for U.S. national security."
This is a massive overstatement. A national and global threat? Anthrax is not infectious, as the NBSB knows. The only people affected in an attack would be those directly exposed to the bacterium, likely only a handful of people. We don't vaccinate millions of people just to protect a hypothetical few: this is an abuse of the public trust in vaccines.

So why are we wasting billions of dollars to develop, test, and administer a vaccine against something that hardly infects anyone? The anthrax vaccine development project was on its way to being cancelled by the U.S. before the 2001 anthrax attacks. In an ironic twist, the likely perpetrator of the attacks, Bruce Ivins, was allegedly motivated by his interest in reviving the anthrax vaccine program. If so, then he succeeded in a big way: in 2004, the government announced Project Bioshield, which dedicated $5.6 billion to biodefense, much of that going to anthrax vaccine research.

I'm not surprised that if the government dedicates billions of dollars to biodefense, and distributes it to companies and universities who then become dependent on these funds, then advisory panels such as the NBSB will recommend an ever-increasing number of security measures. After all, some of the members of that committee are funded by biodefense dollars, and if we cut the funding, their own livelihoods might suffer.

Speaking to the Washington Post, panel member Ruth Berkelman said:
“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine as we develop plans to use the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack.”
No, we don't. We don't need to know about the safety of the vaccine in children because it would be unethical to test it on them. And if there is an attack, we shouldn't respond by vaccinating "a large number of children," because anthrax doesn't spread from person to person. This is one vaccine we can do without.


[Note: I was a member of the research group that sequenced the DNA of the B. anthracis used in the 2001 attacks. We published our findings in two papers, one in 2002 and the second, after the investigation concluded, in 2011.]

4 comments:

  1. Steve, are any members of the NBSB from the pharmaceutical industry?

    If the board has a member or members from an industry that would likely benefit from selling of a vaccine, this may explain the report.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, indeed they are. Here is the list of members:
    http://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/legal/boards/nbsb/Documents/2011roster.pdf
    It includes academics and several industry representatives including someone from Merck and someone from SAIC, a very large government contractor.

    But the academics on the board also benefit from continued funding of anthrax research.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Why do we even allow chiropractic "colleges" to award so-called "doctorates"? This only allows the ill-informed to think that these quacks are just another kind of doctor (of medicine). And how did they ever get the stingy insurance companies to reimburse for chiropractic?

    Do you know anything about the history of these developments?

    ReplyDelete
  4. They award a degree called a "D.C" or "doctor of chiropractic." They do call themselves doctors, and the American Medical Association has tried to fight this - they called chiropractic "an unscientific cult" for years, but the chiropractors association sued them in 1987 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiropractic) and won, so now the AMA has to keep quiet.

    Insurance companies cover chiropractic in most states because the states require it - which is a result of continual lobbying by chiros over the years. Just shows how effective lobbying and marketing can be.

    ReplyDelete

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