WASHINGTON — Mark Ammend of Collierville can't talk about it now. The former fire chief for the 164th Air National Guard unit based at Memphis International Airport got vaccinated against anthrax five years ago. Now, as he lies in a specially designed bed, the only thing he can move is his left eye. Fully conscious and aware, Ammend, 55, is a quadriplegic with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease.
A new book suggests he and many other soldiers immunized against anthrax during the 1991 Gulf War and since are suffering auto-immune diseases after receiving an illegal chemical adjuvant — a chemical designed to boost the immune system — called squalene.
The Pentagon adamantly disagrees and insists that the vaccine is safe.
In his just-published “Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment That's Killing Our Soldiers and Why G.I.'s Are Only the First Victims,” author Gary Matsumoto suggests Memphis was the key to the immunological puzzle.
“The whole idea originated in Memphis,” he said in an interview.
That idea came from Pamela B. Asa, a former Memphis immunologist now living in Tupelo who collaborates with Robert F. Garry, a professor of microbiology at the Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans. Asa and Garry made the connection between squalene, which has not been authorized for use in humans in the United States, and what has been called Gulf War Syndrome in an article in Experimental and Molecular Pathology in 2002.
Auto-immune diseases such as ALS, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are chronic and increasingly debilitating. They occur when the body can't distinguish between itself and foreign substances it's supposed to attack. Thirty years of scientific literature has shown squalene and other oil adjuvants have induced auto-immune-like illnesses in four species of lab animals. Squalene has never been licensed for use in humans in this country, although it is an element of a variety of experimental drugs.
Asa began looking into the connection between the constellation of symptoms associated with the soldiers' syndrome in 1994, and went to the Pentagon with her concerns. She said she found that many of the soldiers complaining of rashes, fatigue, blackouts, seizures, and joint and muscle pain looked like they had systemic lupus erythematosus, a multi-symptomatic auto-immune disease.
She monitored discussions on Gulf War Syndrome chat rooms, and recommended medical tests that those who were suspicious about their health might take. Word got around, and some shared seriology data with her.
Matsumoto wrote about her suspicions for the first time in 1999, in Vanity Fair magazine, prompting some soldiers in bases around the country to protest taking their anthrax shots. Many others soldiered on, and took them.
At least four members of the 164th Air Guard unit in Memphis quit in 1999 rather than take the shots. But more than 800 took them, according to unit officials at the time.
Ammend, the Air Guard fire chief in Memphis for 11 years and a soldier since 1972, took his first anthrax shot in 1999. He took the last one in April 2000. In 2002, he could still walk, his wife, Mary, said Tuesday. He now lies, mouth open, in his living room, on a respirator 24 hours a day.
“I understand why it was done, or why it was needed,” Mary Ammend said. “But I just feel it could — there should have been more care taken for the FDA to study it before they started dishing it out to the guys.”
Three members of the 164th ANG unit in Memphis approached Asa after the Vanity Fair article and asked her to test their blood for antibodies to squalene before they were administered their mandatory anthrax shots. Before the shots, they had no antibodies to the substance. Afterward, two did.
One of them was Sgt. Serge Trullet of Ripley, Miss. A naturalized citizen from Argentina, Trullet wouldn't disobey an order to take the shot, but he wanted to take precautions, he told Matsumoto. When he tested positive for the antibodies to squalene, then started getting a rash and swelling, he didn't blame Uncle Sam. He blamed the unknown people “somewhere along the line,” who let it happen.
“I don't know what to think about my commanders,” Matsumoto quotes him saying. “I think that they're just ignorant — you know, ‘follow the leader' types that absolutely question nothing that their superiors tell them. I feel that some of them would have probably done the same things that the Nazis did to the Jews with the excuse that they were just following orders.” Trullet did not respond to phone calls from The Commercial Appeal Tuesday.
“This (squalene) has not been out in the public forum because the Department of Defense has sort of blown it off and tried to portray people who spoke about it as conspiracy nuts,” Asa said in an interview Tuesday.
“Had they (soldiers) not been given this stuff, we would not be finding antibodies to it in people who are sick with auto-immune diseases that squalene has been chronicled to cause for decades.”
It's complicated science, but Asa and Matsumoto maintain that the squalene was used experimentally to boost the immune response to a very weak vaccine prepared to ward off a bio-chemical attack of weaponized anthrax spores known to have been developed by Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War.
Over the years, symptoms of Gulf War illness have been blamed on stress or nerve gas exposure, flea collar insecticides and other factors, but anthrax vaccine has usually been among them. More than $100 million has been spent to find its cause.
James Turner, a Department of Defense spokesman specializing in health matters, said Tuesday that he was familiar with Matsumoto's book but called the concerns it raises “an old, old issue” being pushed by his publisher. Turner directed specific questions about anthrax and squalene to a department Web site. The site acknowledges that the Food and Drug Administration found squalene in some vaccines for anthrax, but says the amount was probably from fingerprint contamination by lab technicians and too small to cause concern.
Before ending the call, Turner added: “The fact is that we do not put squalene in our vaccines and never have. … The notion that we're using military people as guinea pigs without their knowledge is absurd.”
Absurd or not, it is Matsumoto's most explosive claim, and it's backed by Asa. He says in the book that FDA tests show that the amounts of squalene found in different “lots” or batches of the vaccine administered to some troops shows a pattern. That pattern establishes someone was trying to determine the response to a progression of different doses, he claims.
“This is an experiment,” Asa said Tuesday. “This is a dose-range experiment.”
Perhaps the strangest set of facts revealed in his exhaustive history of anthrax's use as a potential weapon is Matsumoto's claim that the vaccine administered to soldiers might protect against anthrax encountered by contact, but would never work effectively against inhaled anthrax spores such as the threat foreseen from Saddam.
Asa agrees, and so does a federal judge in Washington. U.S. Dist. Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled Oct. 27 that the mandatory use of anthrax vaccine on soldiers is illegal and must stop because authorities can't prove it actually works against the inhaled anthrax expected to be used as a weapon in wartime.
Since the mid-1980s, the FDA had never found the vaccine effective in other than occupational settings, such as for protection of workers exposed to infested animal hides. But in December 2003, after the mandatory inoculations had been under way for five years, the FDA found that the vaccine was effective for inhaled anthrax. Sullivan said the agency failed to follow its own protocols in reaching that conclusion and ruled the vaccine can be used only in the case of informed consent or a presidential waiver.
Asked Tuesday why the Pentagon would want to vaccinate soldiers with a shot that couldn't accomplish its purpose, Asa said she doesn't know. But in her decades of research, she knows the Department of Health and Human Services has been looking for an oil adjuvant to boost potential anti-AIDS vaccines. She says agency researchers are trying to “make the science fit their wish list.”