David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said that while details remain to be worked out, the Pentagon does not expect to return anytime soon to its original goal of vaccinating all 2.4 million members of the armed forces against the deadly anthrax disease.
Initially the vaccine will be given only to those troops deemed most at risk, he said. He cited as examples those who work in laboratories where anthrax spores are handled, and special operations troops.
Some military personnel believe the vaccine causes health problems, and hundreds have been forced from the armed forces after refusing orders to take it. The government insists the vaccine is safe.
The Pentagon had been forced to scale back the vaccination program, which started in 1998, after factory violations by the nation's sole manufacturer of anthrax vaccine. Those problems have been corrected and in January the Food and Drug Administration cleared Lansing, Mich.-based BioPort's manufacturing plant to resume production and to release 500,000 doses it already had made.
The Sept. 11 attacks changed the government's whole approach to the vaccination issue, Chu said.
"The events of last fall were really a wake-up call for the country about the possibility of biological agents being used as a weapon of mass destruction, and therefore this is no longer just a military personnel problem. This is also a national problem," Chu said in an interview with several reporters.
Thus the vaccine supply will be widely shared.
"While we are still debating the details, what I think you will see in the end is, we will set aside a major part of what vaccine is available to be sure that we can protect the civil population of the United States," Chu said. "I don't want to start any rumors here. We're not going to vaccinate the whole population."
Health officials have said there's no need for civilians to take the vaccine unless there is an attack.
President Bush's Homeland Security Office is trying to figure out how much vaccine might be needed for police, firefighters, rescue squads and others who would be "first responders" to any attack in America.
Chu said details are still be worked out for military use.
"My anticipation is that, in terms who in the military is vaccinated, we will continue with what is the implicit policy at the moment," — vaccinating those troops deemed to face the greatest risk.
"What that implies is, I don't think you're going to see any early return to just vaccinating everybody," Chu said. "That's not a very prudent policy in these circumstances, because the first principle is we've got to protect the entire nation."
In the longer run, the Pentagon is working on developing a new anthrax vaccine that could be fully effective in fewer doses than the existing vaccine, which was developed decades ago.
Chu also noted that the Centers for Disease Control is studying whether sufficient protection against anthrax could be provided by giving the present vaccine in fewer doses. He said results from the study could be available in a year.