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CNN Today

House Panel Recommends Pentagon Stop U.S. Military Anthrax Immunization; USAF Officer Refuses Vaccine Because of 'Safety Issue'

Aired February 17, 2000 - 2:03 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with a report from Washington that could cause more dissension in the ranks of the U.S. military. A House panel recommends the Pentagon stop the immunization of 2.4 million servicemen and women against anthrax. A sharply critical report calls the controversial vaccine "experimental" and some troops say it made them ill. The study questions the vaccine's effectiveness and safety, concluding that the military's program, while well-intentioned, does not pass medical muster. Nonetheless, as you just heard, the Pentagon says it has no plans to suspend the vaccinations.

CNN medical correspondent Eileen O'Connor joins us from Washington to talk about what's behind the findings and what may lie ahead -- Eileen.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the subcommittee pointed to the fact there wasn't enough scientific evidence to prove that this vaccine was effective against the airborne form of anthrax. They want it replaced -- the mandatory vaccine program replaced with a voluntary one where troops are informed of the risks and benefits of the vaccine.

They say that there, again, is not enough scientific testing that the vaccine is really going to protect the troops against this airborne type of anthrax, and that is really what troops would face. And the risk of adverse effects, they say, is there from the vaccine.

The Pentagon insists it stands by the program and will not suspend it. Doctors at the Pentagon say the potential threat from biological weapons using anthrax is very real and that troops must be protected.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SUE BAILEY, ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR HEALTH SAFETY: The Department of Defense is very confident in the anthrax program that we have undertaken. We have a very safe and effective vaccine against a very deadly biologic agent that we know to be in the hands of many of our adversaries and could be used against our forces. That would imply, were they not vaccinated and exposed to this agent, they would die a horrible death.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'CONNOR: Over 380,000 troops have gone through the full series of six shots over 18 months. The subcommittee also found that there is a supply problem. And, logistically, it was proving difficult for mobile forces to have the full six shots in the recommended time frame. They also said that, while they understood the importance of military discipline, when troops enlisted, threats from vaccines were not ones that they thought they would face, and punishing those that refused is unfair and bad for morale.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), CONNECTICUT: The consequences are that we have some men and women who are getting sick. Now, most have some adverse reaction, but it's minimal. Some have a stronger one and some have systemic reactions. And what we are seeing -- and it's tragic -- we are seeing some of our military in the active force being court-martialed because they simply refuse to take this vaccine.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'CONNOR: They also pointed to the fact that some in the Reserves were leaving before full retirement so as to avoid taking the vaccine, and this at a time when the military is having trouble attracting and keeping good people. This, says members of Congress, is a situation that the country cannot afford.

I'm Eileen O'Connor, reporting live from Washington.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And as you may know, hundreds of military personnel have refused these anthrax injections. Possibly the highest-ranking of those, Air Force Major Sonnie Bates, had faced a court-martial. Today, Air Force officials said they would not prosecute this 14-year veteran. Instead, the matter will go to his base commander for a hearing. Bates, a decorated pilot, could receive sanctions ranging from loss of pay to 30 days confinement.

Major Sonnie Bates is on the line with us now from Dover Air Force Base.

Major, you refused to take these injections because you did not consider them safe. Two weeks ago, you faced a hearing on charges that you violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice in, quote, "your failure to obey the lawful order of a superior officer." What happened in that hearing? Did you know this was coming today?

MJR. SONNIE BATES, UNITES STATES AIR FORCE: We didn't have the hearing. We -- the hearing was waved for certain reasons, for legal reasons. But I'd like to say that one of the purposes of being concerned about this vaccine is a Senate report that shows that the vaccine should be considered investigational, therefore requiring our informed consent.

WATERS: So your reaction today is what -- to the subcommittee report?

BATES: Well, I'm pleased to see the subcommittee's report come out. At the same time, I'm a bit concerned about the overall issue for the military. I believe that the secretary of defense and those that work with him are doing their very best to protect the troops, I just believe we have a situation here where the communication needs to be improved. We have a real safety issue here and we need to address it.

WATERS: Well, did you just hear the briefing from the Pentagon where they took exception to the subcommittee's report?

BATES: No, I did not.

WATERS: Well, they did and they said absolutely not when asked if they were going to suspend the program or change the program. What do you expect will happen now?

BATES: Well, I'm not for sure what will happen overall, but we will continue, my attorneys and I, to try to convince my commanders that my issue here is a safety issue and that I'm sincere about it. I'm committed to making sure that the drug that we receive here to protect our troops is a safe drug.

WATERS: And we'll be following along with you, Major Sonnie Bates, U.S. Air Force, a 14-year veteran. Thanks for joining us.

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