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Last update - 01:42 27/07/2007

Abusing volunteers

By Haaretz Editorial

A secret medical experiment that injected soldiers with the anti-anthrax vaccine, run over eight years beginning in 1998, raises alarming questions about the army authorities' conduct.

The army conducted the experiment, code-named Omer 2, under a cloak of secrecy, furtiveness and panic. Now, as details emerge despite the military authorities, it is clear that the soldiers involved have been brushed aside with half-truths and evasion.

The experiment was carried out on obedient, motivated soldiers from elite units. Indeed, they volunteered for the mission, but in such circumstances, what they did cannot be called volunteering in any way. Had not a few of them started suffering from serious after-effects, they themselves would probably be covering up the system's blunders to this day.

The details are now beginning to see the light of day, after a petition was submitted to the High Court of Justice by a group of young adults suffering from breathing and skin problems and having various degrees of difficulty with everyday functions. The petitioners are demanding that the army accept responsibility for them and treat their condition. They are also demanding that it reveal the experiment's decision-making process and supervision mechanism. The defense establishment's refusal to provide a clear answer increases the sense of alarm over its conduct.

The authorities claim to this day that the American vaccine (which was given to a quarter of the group taking part in the experiment) was "completely safe" already at the time, because it had been tried successfully in the United States. However, it was known that until 2005 about half of the U.S.'s soldiers refused to be vaccinated with this substance due to the fear of after-effects.

Three-quarters of the Israeli soldiers in the experiment were injected with an Israeli vaccine, which had not been tried until then. Both those given the American vaccine and those given the Israeli vaccine are suffering from after-effects today.

The study was a closely-kept secret, although the director of the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, Professor Avigdor Shafferman, who headed the experiment, now claims that the vaccine's composition was not classified. Details of the Israeli vaccine had been published already in 2001 in foreign periodicals and in the domestic press.

Public health laws stipulate that a doctor may not conduct an experiment on a person subject to his authority unless it is done under the supervision of the Helsinki Committee and the Health Ministry's pharmaceutical division. Needless to say, neither condition was kept when Omer 2 was conducted on soldiers. Those who conducted the experiment obtained the necessary permits, but it is not known which civilian authorities supervised it, to what extent they oversaw it at all and why there was no follow-up supervision of the inoculated soldiers.

A Knesset bill governing human experiments, which passed its preliminary reading earlier this week, tries to establish the boundaries for what was described as lawlessness in the 55th State Comptroller's Report. Nothing is easier than conducting an experiment on a "captive" group such as soldiers or infirm elderly people (like the experiments at Hartzfeld Geriatric Hospital in Gedera).

Until this business is regulated by law, a committee of inquiry must be set up to shed light on the concealed details, define the responsibility toward the young civilians who were harmed and prevent such occurrences in the future.

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