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A healing-killing conflict in military research?

The history of war is replete with examples of suffering endured by soldiers ravaged with disease. Even during our involvement in Vietnam, endemic diseases were the single greatest cause Of morbidity among U.S. soldiers.

To cope with the threats of endemic disease and biological weapons, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) conducts basic studies related to medical defense against worldwide, naturally occurring infectious diseases that require high laboratory containment and to medical defense against potential biological warfare agents.

The focus of USAMRIID's biomedical research is the development of both preventive and therapeutic measures. Preventive research measures, including vaccines and toxoids as well as prophylactic drugs, attempt to enhance the combat effectiveness of deployed U.S. forces who face either a risk of endemic disease or a threat of the use of biological agents by an adversary.

Presently, USAMRIID is conducting a preventive vaccine trial as a cooperative effort between the Argentine government and the United States ArmY. Some 3,000 volunteers have been immunized with a vaccine developed at USAMRIID against a virus known to cause hemorrhagic fever endemic to Argentina.

Research that is therapeutic in nature is in progress in the People's Republic of China. A double-blind, Placebo-controlled drug trial, a joint venture between the Chinese and the U,S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, is testing the efficacy of an antiviral drug in patients already sick with hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome.

Recently, these programs have drawn sharp criticism from some American and European scientists. The major claim from those critical of military medical biological research is that it Will spawn a biological weapons race. Another charge is that the military ought not to be involved in research that is really the domain of public health. The concern is that the military could engage in research with potential weapons applications under the guise of defensive public health research.

The difference between these two criticisms is very subtle. Both seem to assume that there is no real distinction between offensive biological research (prohibited by the Biological. Weapons Convention of 1972) and defensive research; hence the U.S. military should not be conducting this type of research.

The claim that there is no real distinction between offensive and defensive biological medical research seems empirically false. The preventive and therapeutic research conducted by USAMRIID focuses on naturally occurring agents, and not on creating new agents. All of the infectious disease and biological defense research is unclassified and subject to public scrutiny. Rather than create a biological arms race, the military maintains that public disclosure of its defensive capabilities against biological weapons serves as a deterrent.

The criticism that the military ought not to be involved with public health research seems to miss the point entirely. The projects in China and Argentina are not public health research. Their ultimate purpose is to Provide the U.S. military protection from and treatment for diseases that pose a health threat to military personnel likely to be deployed in a host Of worldwide contingency operations. There is substantial incidental benefit to the host country, but the Primary purpose for U.S. involvement is military biological defense, not public health.

An implicit premise in these criticisms is that any biomedical research conducted by the U.S. military is inherently evil. (The "Nazification" of the German medical community lingers all tOo vividly.) Such a position suggests that scientists participating in military-sponsored research face a healing-killing moral conflict. However, if there exists a moral obligation of the healing professions to promote health, then the aim of the military biological defense program is consistent with that moral obligation-namely, providing American soldiers adequate protection from and treatment for the related combat hazards of biological warfare and endemic disease.
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Author:Frisina, Michael
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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