The Pentagon could run out of anthrax vaccine by July and be forced to suspend the problem-plagued program to inoculate the nation's 2.4-million-strong armed forces, the investigative arm of Congress reported Thursday.
The General Accounting Office said that the fundamental requirement of the program - maintaining an adequate supply of vaccine - has "not yet been met."
"The optimism at the start of this program was overstated," Carole R. Schuster, associate GAO director for national security preparedness, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
More that two years after Defense Secretary William Cohen announced the immunization program, only about 420,000 service members have received the six-shot series - most of them serving in the high-threat areas such as the Gulf or South Korea.
As many as 12 nations have or are developing a biological warfare capability, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Russia and China, according to Rear Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The only supplier, Bioport Corp. of Lansing, Mich., has failed to win Food and Drug Administration approval to produce any more of the vaccine.
And while the Pentagon insists the vaccine is safe, more than 300 service members have refused the mandatory inoculations, citing health concerns. Some objectors have been prosecuted and others have quit.
Defense Department officials, appearing at the same Senate hearing, reiterated their commitment to the program, citing real threats from the deadly biological-warfare agent.
They conceded having misjudged the cost and popularity of the program and the availability of the vaccine, however.
The GAO's Schuster said supplies of the vaccine are running low and that Bioport is not expected to win FDA approval to make more until late 2000.
At the current rate of administering vaccinations, the Pentagon could run out of vaccine as early as July - and leave the program without vaccine for months, she said.
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