Obama administration considering whether to test anthrax vaccine on children

The Takeaway

Story from The Takeaway. Listen to the above audio for a complete report.

A small group of the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) has endorsed a plan to test the anthrax vaccine in children, prompting an intense debate about whether its worth subjecting health children to a potentially risky medical test.

Anthrax killed hundreds and thousands through the years, until vaccines started being developed. The first human anthrax vaccine was developed in the 1950s. The newest vaccine, BioThrax has been tested and proven effective in adults, but now the administration of President Barack Obama must decide whether to test the vaccine on children.

“Any vaccine carries some risk, especially when you’re testing it in a new group,” said Dr. Art Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “While vaccines are very, very safe, when you’re testing in a new population there’s always some risks.

Another complication is there’s no way to know for sure how much of a dose children will need. Adults typically need five shots over a series of several weeks to receive anthrax immunity. More than 2.5 million members of America’s armed forces have already received the vaccine.

If testing isn’t done now, however, all of the research and dosing measurements will have to be done when it’s most difficult: during an outbreak. And with anthrax extremely rare in the natural world, that most likely means an outbreak would come during some sort of terrorist attack.

“Even if we said we’re going to allow this testing to proceed,” Caplan said, “I’m not sure which parents are going to sign their children up.”

And that’s the other side of this issue. Even if the Obama adminitration green lights the testing, ultimately parents will have to OK their children being a part of an anthrax vaccine test.

Caplan said the easiest way to do that is to lead parents to conclude that the threat of an anthrax is so high, that they want their children to be among those who are protected.

“I don’t know if you can ratchet up the fear factor that high,” he said.

Also complicating matters: we really don’t know how effective this vaccine is. The proposed tests will merely judge the safety of the vaccine, and at what levels the body produces the correct immune system response.

“Really knowing, if there’s a real blast of anthrax around whether you’re going to get a protective effect, is probably going to have to be done in the real world of an anthrax attack,” Caplan said.

For himself, Caplan said he’s not ready to sign his own children up to be parts of such a test. He doesn’t believe the threat level is high enough to warrant it.

“We may get, sadly, to that point some day, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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