Behind the U.S. military's 'complicated history' around vaccinations

·D.C. Bureau Chief
·3-min read

Last week, President Biden raised eyebrows when he announced that federal civilian workers would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or face measures such as frequent testing, yet didn’t extend that mandate to members of the military.

But Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says the Biden administration’s approach to vaccinating the more than 1 million active duty members of the military makes sense.

“The military does have a complicated history around requiring, especially people in uniform, to take certain medications or to be vaccinated,” he said, referring to the controversial decision in the 1990s to compel members of the military to get an experimental anthrax vaccination.

As the commander in chief, Biden could immediately order that members of the military be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Moreno, though such a move would likely create a backlash, as it did with anthrax.

President Joe Biden speaks at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va. on May 28, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
President Joe Biden speaks at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va. on May 28, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

“The president could compel without informed consent people in uniform to be vaccinated,” said Moreno. “That was done in the late 1990s with anthrax vaccination. Some people left the service because of that. We’re not talking about that here.”

The military’s attempt to inoculate troops against anthrax — prompted at the time by concerns that Saddam Hussein would use biological weapons — faced harsh resistance in some quarters of the military over reported side effects. Eventually, in 2004, the military was ordered to halt compulsory anthrax vaccinations until it received full FDA approval, which happened the next year.

Moreno, who in the 1990s was involved in a presidential commission to investigate allegations of government-sponsored radiation research during the Cold War, said the COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been administered to millions of people around the world, are different.

“This is not a case where people are being required to be human guinea pigs,” he said. “Nobody wants that.”

In mandating the coronavirus vaccination for federal workers, Biden said he would also ask Defense Department leaders to explore adding the COVID-19 vaccinations, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration under an emergency use authorization, to the list of required inoculations for military members.

A member of the U.S. Marine Corps stands on the tarmac as Marine One, with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden aboard, approaches Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
A member of the U.S. Marine Corps stands on the tarmac as Marine One, with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden aboard, approaches Delaware Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

“There’s no question that it would be easier for lots of organizations, including the military, to mandate the vaccine if the FDA finishes its internal processes about getting to full authorization,” Moreno said. “But you know, millions of people around the world have taken these vaccines. We know what they can do. And we know how minuscule the problems are. We also know how grave the problems are for individuals and for whole societies if people aren’t vaccinated.”

To date, about 64 percent of the military is fully vaccinated; that’s slightly higher than the national average but still below what political and military leaders would like to see.

“I don’t have a problem with the way that they, the commanders and political leaders in the [Defense Department], civilian leadership has handled this so far,” Moreno said. “They’ve done pretty well, I think, in getting most people to accept vaccination.

“This is not an issue about experimentation and informed consent,” he said. “This is trying to get everybody on board with what is now standard public health practice to get over that goal line. And to give people the sense that they are being respected, and that they have an alternative.”

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