U.S. Plans Trial Distribution of Anthrax Vaccine in Early 2013

The United States could move forward early next year with a planned trial initiative to offer anthrax vaccine to select nonmilitary emergency personnel, a senior Homeland Security Department official told lawmakers last week.

The plan, details of which were reported by Global Security Newswire in April, would give participating state and local emergency personnel the option of accepting a course of anthrax vaccination doses from the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile of medical countermeasures. The project would examine the potential to more widely distribute the countermeasure to first responders on a voluntary basis.

The department is putting the "final touches" on preparations for "soliciting groups who would be interested in participating in this pilot project," Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Alexander Garza said on Thursday at a joint hearing convened by two House Homeland Security subcommittees.

Garza said that the department was still fielding questions on the project from state agencies, local offices, and nongovernmental groups. Homeland Security was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recruit two federal offices and two state offices in the trial initiative, according to earlier reporting.

"As you can imagine, this is a very complex endeavor," he said, referring to challenges in implementing the Defense Department's mandatory anthrax-vaccination program. "So it is no small feat to do this time."

Garza did not elaborate on difficulties faced by the Pentagon immunization effort, but federal courts have weighed multiple challenges to its legality.

The new initiative is "fairly close" to moving forward, but certain "bureaucratic mechanisms" made the exact timing of implementation difficult to predict, the official said in response to questioning by House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee ranking member Laura Richardson, D-Calif.

"If pressed, I would say early next year" is a realistic estimate for the rollout, Garza said.