about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

09 Jan 2003

Source:  New York Times, January 9, 2003


Military Says It Can't Make Enough Vaccines for Troops


WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 One of the Army's top biodefense officers said today that the Pentagon does not have vaccines to protect troops from some virulent biological agents because it has not been able to offer enough money to commercial pharmaceutical companies to produce them.

The officer, Col. Erik A. Henchal, said the Army laboratory that he commands at Fort Detrick, Md., has developed 20 vaccines for various deadly agents. But most are sitting on the shelf, he said, because the Pentagon has not been able to attract interest from pharmaceutical companies, which see little commercial value in them.

Under normal circumstances, Pentagon researchers develop a drug or vaccine to a certain point, then license it to a commercial company for production. In the case of some biological agents, the demand for vaccines has not been sufficient to prod commercial drug companies to produce them on a large scale for civilian use.

In a wide-ranging interview, Colonel Henchal, who took command of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases last June, also said that ports, airports and other logistical hubs could be prime terrorist targets for sowing panic among civilians, unleashing an international epidemic or disrupting military preparations in the Persian Gulf.

Until recently, Colonel Henchal said, the relatively small number of vaccine dosages the Pentagon would require for service members has discouraged commercial interest in developing such products for the military. He said new financing methods or perhaps a production facility dedicated to military use might be needed.

Moreover, delays of two to five years to obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration only compounded the problem. "It's been difficult to get vaccines into production," the colonel said.

Even as the administration has prepared a plan to protect the nation against smallpox, Colonel Henchal said, the country and its armed forces remain vulnerable. "There are holes in a list of agents we think of as classical biological threats," he told reporters at a breakfast meeting. "We've been trying to fill those holes."

In some cases where vaccines are lacking, the colonel said, antibiotics can treat an infection if administered soon after exposure. But not all agents can be treated with antibiotics, he added.

Colonel Henchal spoke candidly for an hour about bioterror threats and vulnerabilities that many civilian policymakers have discussed in more muted terms, presumably to avoid raising public alarm.

For example, he said, releasing smallpox in the Frankfurt International Airport in Germany, with hundreds of thousands of travelers, "could create a worldwide epidemic of smallpox pretty quickly."

He also said terrorists would most likely use airplanes, boats or even cars equipped with foggers or sprayers, like those on crop dusters, to disperse biological agents.

The colonel's command is responsible for researching vaccines, therapeutic drugs and information about biological agents. It does not have primary responsibility for developing protective gear worn by troops or sensors designed to detect agents.

The military, he said, is still going through growing pains in consolidating and coordinating all the disparate units that have responsibility for dealing with terrorist attacks.

Last year, the Pentagon established a new Northern Command in Colorado to oversee the military's response to homeland security matters. Colonel Henchal said "connections were still being made" between the Army lab and the new military headquarters, which he said was in many ways still a "virtual command."

Asked to rank the most serious biological threats to American troops, Colonel Henchal said anthrax and smallpox were at the top. But because the United States is taking steps to inoculate its troops and civilian populations or has effective antibiotics against some germs, he said, terrorists may pursue other agents.

The British authorities found a small quantity of the deadly toxin ricin during an antiterrorist sweep in London over the weekend. Colonel Henchal said ricin is an effective agent against individual targets but would be less effective in a major attack because large quantities of the agent would be required.

Botulinum, a toxin that leads to paralysis and respiratory failure, is a serious threat because it is fast-acting and difficult to detect in the body, he said, noting that Iraq had the ability to produce the agent. When asked how large a hole there is in America's defenses against botulinum, he said, "I think it's pretty serious."

The Army lab has developed seven vaccines for various strains of botulinum, but the high cost of producing them has stalled their production, Colonel Henchal said. "They don't fit people's business models," he said.

Citing pharmaceutical industry figures, he said it costs $600 million to bring a new vaccine to market. By comparison, the Army lab's annual budget is about $50 million, he said.

Colonel Henchal said the military had improved its ability to analyze suspected agents. Portable field sensors can screen air samplings and give an initial analysis within 15 minutes, he said. A larger Army mobile laboratory can give a more detailed analysis within about 40 minutes. Specialists from the mobile lab recently were sent to the Persian Gulf, he said.

The Army lab, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, can provide a final and definitive analysis. But Colonel Henchal said that could take anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days, depending on the agent.

On the battlefield, Colonel Henchal said, commanders would not have detection equipment as a part of their force. If their units came under attack from suspected chemical or biological weapons, he said the commander's main recourse would be to order troops to don protective equipment.

American troops are trained to operate in the hot, cumbersome protective suits, but Colonel Henchal said the gear reduces combat effectiveness by about 30 percent. "It's just a reality," he said.