March 26, 2009

Anthrax Vaccine Testing On Israeli Soldiers Unnecessary

Israeli soldiers who underwent "unnecessary" testing as part of the army's efforts to find an anthrax vaccine around the time of the 1991 Gulf War were not sufficiently advised of the risks, according to an AFP report on Wednesday citing a declassified Israeli report.

Israel's high court ordered the official release of the findings, which were initially leaked by a private television channel about two years ago.

The findings of the medical commission of inquiry that the court ordered released revealed that the so-called Omer-2 tests on 716 Israeli soldiers were not even necessary.  

The tests were part of a program that sought to produce a vaccine for an anthrax-based biological weapon believed at the time to be part of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's arsenal.  However, Israel already had more than a million doses of anthrax vaccine in its stocks at the time, according to the inquiry.

Several dozen Israeli soldiers were believed to have fallen ill as a result of the tests, with some developing epilepsy, according to public radio reports.

Although the actions of the Nes Tziona germ warfare defense research center just outside Tel Aviv are typically under strict military censorship,  the commission harshly criticized the secrecy that had surrounded the entire operation.

The released documents do not make clear precisely when the tests were conducted, either before or after the 1991 offensive to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's troops. 

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 had triggered widespread panic in Israel, with many fearing that Saddam's military forces were armed with both non-conventional warheads and the missile systems to deliver them to targets inside Israel.

In total, 39 Iraqi Scud missiles hit the Jewish state, but none carried chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

Israel's defense ministry said the Omer-2 tests had been conducted as part of the state's efforts to defend its civilians against any non-conventional attack, an objective that had now been reached.

"Israel is now capable of protecting the civilian population against this serious threat," the AFP report quoted the Israeli ministry as saying.


Image Caption: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph shows splenic tissue from a monkey with inhalational anthrax; featured are rod-shaped bacilli (yellow) and an erythrocyte (red). Courtesy NIH