by Scott Malone
In these times of panicked waiting lines for flu vaccine, here comes a new and even more frightening look at the US military's ill-fated anthrax vaccine program.
In "Vaccine - A: The Covert Government Experiment That's Killing Our Soldiers And Why GI's Are Only The First Victims," author Gary Matsumoto tells an amazing, six-year scientific mystery story, unraveled literally strand by strand and lab sample by lab sample. It is a real-life and death CSI show, and perhaps a tragic mistake of gargantuan proportions, affecting thousands if not hundreds of thousands of US fighting men and women.
In a crash effort to boost the effectiveness and lessen the required doses of existing anthrax vaccines, US military researchers apparently turned to squalene, a naturally-occurring oil distantly related to cholesterol. The squalene was added to various "experimental" batches of the vaccine administered to troops destined for the first Gulf War in 1991. But when injected, even in the minutest of amounts, squalene oil can cause the body's immune system to create its own specialized anti-bodies which then indiscriminately attack all such other oils in the body. These auto-immune reactions have the exact same symptoms as those of the victims of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome.
Proving that this additive, called an 'adjuvant' (a word not often heard outside of microbiology), was causing these adverse reactions has been an uphill battle for a handful of dedicated civilian researchers. And it is their stories, along with those of some fearless victims, that become the focus of Matsumoto's book.
Matsumoto has done his research and it shows. He is very precise and careful. His book is also well-written, with the occasional clever turn of phrase, such as "Rube Goldberg immunology," to help walk readers through some of the tougher technical data.
And Matsumoto writes with a sad heart and weeping pen. His father and three uncles all proudly served in the US Army. As a former NBC foreign correspondent he served in Iraq covering the first Gulf War. Matsumoto is also an award-winning magazine journalist, and has even been published in the very prestigious, scientist peer-reviewed journal, "Science." He is clearly not your run-of-the-mill author/journalist.
The book starts off with a very scary, up-close look at a secret outbreak of anthrax in the then dark out reaches of Soviet Russia in 1979, with hemorrhaging patients coughing themselves literally to death. The Soviet Union had reinvented the bug wars. It was to remain a top-secret until after the end of the Cold War. But as US intelligence began to pick up hints at the scale of the bio-warfare program, they were then faced with a dramatic choice--they would have to prepare and update US defenses against such a weapon.
During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army secretly tested anthrax and other bugs as weapons, and in response, the US and the British did the same. Fortunately for all, they were never used. And in 1969, President Nixon unilaterally put the US military out of the bio-warfare business.
All that remained in the US arsenal was the "weakest [possible] vaccine" for anthrax. US military researchers would soon find themselves secretly following a long tradition of testing new drugs on uniformed military personnel without their informed consent. Despite the precedent of the Nuremburg trials, the US had secretly hired Japanese bio-war criminals and later the CIA conducted unwitting LSD experiments. Unfortunately, because of the nature of war, US military personnel are exempt from such disclosure requirements, and barred by a Supreme Court precedent from ever suing.
During the 1980s, US intelligence began reporting that Iraq had developed a lethal, "dusty" form of anthrax mixed with silica for use against Iran. It was a scary new threat, and the US bio-weaponeers immediately began planning an antidote. The secret US program became a crash program when the Soviet fear factor again raised its ugly head, this time in the form of a Russian bio-weapons defector, in 1989. Not only did the Soviets pose a previously unknown bio-threat, but they were also known to share deadly military technologies with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
It would be hard to blame US military researchers then, as Matsumoto accurately points out, for preparing for a possible new nightmare threat. If the Iraqis or Soviets had employed anthrax and US troops been caught unprotected, there would have been hell to pay. Just ask the flu vaccine manufacturers of today.
In secret, the military researchers began to labor away with adjuvants, rushing to increase the potency of the weak, but licensed vaccine, before US troops faced a deadly Iraqi anthrax attack. However, these efforts would be labeled as "unique research opportunities," according to a recently declassified US document uncovered by Matsumoto.
But when Persian Gulf War vets later began to return home and complain of a whole myriad of debilitating auto-immune symptoms, the potentially heroic medical efforts to 'boost' the vaccine with squalene were quietly hushed up.
The symptoms included rashes, malaise, fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, weakness and sweating, neurological problems, pneumonia, and Lupus. And in some cases even blindness and death.
What was most glaring, in hindsight, was that only vaccinated US, British, Australian and Canadian troops had acquired these various maladies. And some US troops had not even actually been sent to the Gulf, but had been vaccinated in preparation. Further, no local Arab troops or even press members, unvaccinated all, ever came down with any of these autoimmune maladies.
While a media controversy revved up for several years over the newly-named Gulf War Syndrome, in 1997 the government floated a red-herring theory in the form of a CIA "simulation" of a possible gas plume from the detonation of Iraq's captured Sarin nerve gas stockpiles. All of the sudden, the simple solution-seeking media lost all interest, even though the "simulation" had totally failed the basic logic test.
Problem was, most of the affected troops were no longer in theater when the detonation occurred on March 10th, 1991. Further, again, none of the indigenous troops suffered any such consequences. And nerve gas exposure is instant, with much different symptoms.
Complicated medical research, however, is not the usual purview of the American media. An 'adjuvant crossover,' with one wrong injected squalene molecule affecting the entire human immune system, was apparently beyond the comprehension of the average journalist, not to mention most medical professionals. What Matsumoto has managed to dig up is not comforting. Military researchers had ignored animal studies clearly showing the autoimmune pathologies of injected squalene as an adjuvant. These animal studies showed precisely the same symptoms as those experienced by the Gulf vets.
During his investigation, Matsumoto soon crossed paths with medical researchers Pam Asa and Bob Garry, who, working through Tulane Medical Center at Tulane University, had actually been the first to measure the actual anti-bodies caused by injected squalene. They began to test veterans for these anti-bodies.
Dr. Garry dug out an old batch of some 300 blood serum samples from veterans sent to him in 1993 by the Veterans Administration. Out of 86 who had served in the Gulf War, 95% of the sick ones tested positive for the squalene anti-bodies. The number of healthy Gulf vets with the anti-bodies was zero.
Enter Patient X, who met with Asa in Memphis. He was suffering from "auto-immune peripheral neuropathy," consistent with the Gulf War Syndrome. But Patient X had never been in the military nor stationed in Iraq or Saudi Arabia. His only exposure had been in a confidential experimental herpes vaccine study. Further, he was a medical doctor. And he knew exactly what the injection was that he had received-"MF59…squalene and water."
Some British anthrax vaccine samples (a sister to the US program) were later found dumped overboard and washed ashore, apparently from a troop ship heading for the Gulf-which, when tested by Granada Television, also contained the squalene adjuvant. And Matsumoto even discovered a patent held by the Army for the potential new vaccine with squalene in one of its several formulations
"It might even be the single most dangerous oil to come out of a hypodermic needle," Matsumoto writes.
Matsumoto has found many nice historical asides, explaining how disease and war have long been intertwined in US history. In 1775, in a desperate ploy to stave off a smallpox epidemic which threatened the collapse of the Continental Army with desertions, Gen. George Washington ordered that healthy troops be "variolated" by having smallpox pus placed into cuts on their arms. It worked, and the rest is history.
The present day vaccine story is not so pretty a tale, however, with descriptions of the occasional horrible death, including one vet who died in excruciating pain as the skin on his entire body withered away. The book is littered with stories of proud US soldiers dealing with amazing pain, medical confusion and bureaucratic betrayal.
"Perhaps it was the importance of their apparent breakthrough [with squalene] that blinded these scientists to do what they had done," Matsumoto can only sadly surmise.
"By 1997, hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent testing the efficacy of vaccines formulated with squalene adjuvants," Matsumoto reports. Scientists were also frantically looking to squalene to help stem the tides of AIDs and cancer. Adverse news about squalene could potentially threaten "billions of dollars worth of HIV research."
A tragic comedy of errors.
Matsumoto presents a long record of seeming deception by medical and military officials at all levels. It apparently continues to this very day, judging by the coming avalanche of press statements emanating from the Pentagon in response to the book's publication.
After Matsumoto wrote a preliminary article about the squalene adjuvant for Vanity Fair magazine back in 1999, the Air Force quickly struck back.
"Let me say this as succinctly as I can," Air Force Surgeon General Charles H. Roadman II told assembled airmen and pilots at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware who had received the vaccine. "There is not, there never has been, squalene as an adjuvant in the anthrax immunization. And that's a fact."
The director of the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program, Major Guy Strawder, went so far as to call Matsumoto's article "reckless, irresponsible and wrong."
Yet, Matsumoto subsequently found, "contrary to General Roadman's strenuous protests, that various batches of the new anthrax vaccine [administered at Dover and elsewhere] had contained squalene since 1987." And when the supposedly independent Food and Drug Administration finally found that the vaccine contained some amounts of squalene, they too withheld that information from the public for another year and half.
When Matsumoto requested under the Freedom of Information Act any US contracts for adjuvants containing squalene, he was informed that two contracts "and fifteen purchase orders" had, "unfortunately, all…been destroyed."
Although the book can get bogged down occasionally, (but necessarily), in some rather technical issues, Matsumoto does not overplay his hand, perhaps even erring too closely on the side of caution.
And it even has a shocking surprise ending: Matsumoto reports that scientists have only discovered this past summer that the latest possible victims of adjuvant-induced squalene antibodies are the recently returned Iraq War II veterans-a few even suffering some of the same auto-immune symptoms as their earlier comrades.
While the plot twists and turns throughout this excellent book, by far the most ominous twist is that these vaccines are currently stockpiled for use by US civilians in case of further terrorist anthrax attacks on the general population.
This book is the very definition of "a seminal work"-one that cries out for further studies.
Scott Malone is a multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winning investigative journalist who is currently the editor of NavySEALs.com and its counter-terrorism newsletter, "BlackNET Intelligence."