Anti bio-weapon vaccine for troops fails safety tests

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The Independent Online
BRITISH TROOPS serving in the Gulf region are dependent for protection against biological weapons on an anthrax vaccine that has passed its "shelf-life" date three times, and which has been cited as a possible cause of Gulf War syndrome.

Supplies of a new vaccine have failed a number of safety tests, and its production facility, near the Porton Down germ warfare research base in Wiltshire, has had to be completely refurbished.

The disclosure comes a full year after George Robertson, who was Secretary of State for Defence, pledged that replacement vaccine would become available "quickly". At the time he said: "I wish to emphasise personally that the problem is one of supply. There are no doubts over the safety of either the present vaccine, or of the stock that will replace it."

It has also prompted anger from Gulf War veterans, who fear that a further outbreak of sickness among service personnel will follow the most recent use of the old vaccine.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) says the new vaccine will not be available until the middle of next year. A spokesman conceded that new batches produced at the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research (CAMR), run by the Department of Health, had failed tests by the regulatory authorities.

"We looked at that, and decided that the refurbishment programme was required," he said. Existing stocks are still being held as a "contingency measure" for the 1,400 troops now serving in the region, predominantly RAF and Navy personnel, said the spokesman.

But confidential MoD documents show that the old vaccine was manufactured in 1991, and given a shelf-life of two years. This was extended to January 1998, then to November 1998, and officials have confirmed that a further extended licence from the Medicine Control Agency is currently in place.

A document dated last March from RAF strike command headquarters says: "Sensitivities over this ... vaccine and Gulf War syndrome have dictated that additional mechanisms be put in place to ensure all aspects of the anthrax immunisation programme will withstand future scrutiny."

Only those actually going to the Gulf should be immunised, it adds. Another document, also from last March, warns commanders of the imminent start of the programme. "This extremely sensitive issue has been strictly controlled by ministers and the MoD," it says.

This latest vaccination scheme was launched last March for the 3,500 RAF, Royal Navy and Army personnel sent to the Gulf after mounting tensions between the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and the Western powers over the United Nations' nuclear weapons inspection programme.

While it was voluntary, troops were "strongly" recommended to be immunised, in a personal letter from Mr Robertson. He even had himself vaccinated for the benefit of press and television cameras, together with John Reid, the Armed Forces minister, and General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff.

But only 30 per cent of the troops took the vaccination, and on the aircraft carrier Invincible, not a single sailor in the 1,200-strong crew was injected.

The programme was suspended on 30 November last year, when the licence expired again. It has not been resumed, despite a new licence being issued earlier this year.

Gulf War veterans believe this is because high numbers of troops fell ill following the last round of vaccinations. Sean Rusling, chairman of the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said: "One lad came to see us who was vaccinated both in 1991 and last year. He said that while the first lot hit him hard, the second course completely knocked him out." The soldier in question is still serving in the Army, but has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome - a condition typical of Gulf War veterans.

An MoD spokesman said the vaccine was being held in reserve only because the limited stocks may be needed in an emergency. He stressed the CAMR facility was of a suitably high standard at the time the original vaccine was produced.