The Military Can’t Get Troops to Take the Covid Vaccine. Come Again?


Basic training graduation. (Kemberly Groue / US Air Force, Defense Department)

About one-third of military service members are refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine. In some units, refusal rates exceed half of members. At a time when the virus remains as dangerous as ever, this is bananas. Yet the military says troops who decline the vaccine will face no repercussions or changes to their assigned duties, meaning even uninoculated troops will remain deployable around the country and the world. What the hell is going on?

The deal is, federal law prohibits the mandatory application of medicines within the military that are not fully licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration. The three coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States—the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and, as of Saturday, the Johnson & Johnson versions—are approved on “emergency use authorizations,” meaning the drugs are technically still experimental. Full approval could take years, during which time hundreds of thousands of service members will apparently remain susceptible to, and potentially vectors of, Covid-19.

There’s good reason for this law—the government and military have nasty histories of experimenting on people, including service members, without their knowledge or consent—and in fact it’s been put to the test.

In 1997, the military instituted a mandatory vaccination program for anthrax. Upon receiving that vaccine, huge numbers of service members complained of debilitating side effects. (The vaccine may also have been a factor in what’s known as “Gulf War syndrome,” a multi-symptom illness of unknown origin related to service in the 1991 war.) Lawsuits ensued, and in 2004 the D.C. Circuit court determined that the government had violated federal law by mandating the medicine, specifically because the vaccine in question was proven to prevent cutaneous anthrax infection, though the military sought to prevent against inhalation anthrax, the most deadly form of the disease and the one most likely to be associated with a bio-attack. But the FDA hadn’t adequately studied the vaccine’s use against inhalation anthrax, the court found, meaning it didn’t meet the standard for mandatory military distribution.

Following further testing, mandatory anthrax vaccinations resumed in 2007, with troops risking court-martial and even separation from the service if they refused the vaccine. (Fun fact: Jake Angeli, the Viking-helmeted “QAnon shaman” of Capitol riot infamy, was kicked out of the Navy in late 2007, after two years as an enlisted sailor, for this very reason, Task & Purpose reported.)

With the coronavirus vaccine, the Pentagon surely would want to avoid similar, protracted legal battles. Military leaders have expressed frustration at low vaccine acceptance rates—the AP reported they had hoped the military might serve as an example to the public. But the law is clear.

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