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Updated: May 20, 2014 22:25 IST

US won’t use vaccine drives for covert operations

Narayan Lakshman
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This July 9, 2010 photo shows Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi. With 12 top U.S. public health schools protesting the CIA’s use of Dr. Afridi to conduct a fake immunisation drive in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the White House has promised to never use a vaccine campaign again in counterterrorism operations.
AP This July 9, 2010 photo shows Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi. With 12 top U.S. public health schools protesting the CIA’s use of Dr. Afridi to conduct a fake immunisation drive in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the White House has promised to never use a vaccine campaign again in counterterrorism operations.

CIA used Pakistani surgeon Shakil Afridi for a fake immunisation drive in its hunt for Osama

After the deans of 12 top U.S. public health schools wrote to the Obama administration earlier this year protesting the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s use of Pakistani surgeon Shakil Afridi to conduct a fake immunisation drive in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the White House this week promised to never use a vaccine campaign again in counterterrorism operations.

In January, deans of public health schools at Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, among others, said, “As a result of a CIA sham vaccination campaign used to hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Save the Children [a major NGO] was forced by the Government of Pakistan to withdraw all foreign national staff.”

Dr. Afridi was said to have led a CIA-backed “hepatitis immunisation survey” in Abbottabad, the city in northwest Pakistan where Seal Team Six conducted a raid on May 1, 2011, and killed the al-Qaeda boss.

While the aim of the survey was to obtain DNA samples from suspected relatives of Osama living at his fortress-style residence, the tactic was said to have failed in the face of Osama’s “tradecraft,” and Dr. Afridi was convicted of treason and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

However in the face of a strong backlash against polio vaccination drives in the country, including the deaths of numerous polio workers linked to organisations backed by charities abroad, the deans warned, “This disguising of an intelligence-gathering effort as a humanitarian public health service has resulted in serious collateral consequences that affect the public health community.”

Apparently 83 new polio cases were reported in Pakistan last year, which exceeds the number of cases discovered in Afghanistan and Nigeria, prompting an independent monitoring board set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to describe the country as “a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission.” India however won global plaudits for successfully eradicating polio in 2013.

Following the protest letter, the Obama administration promised that under policies established by CIA boss John Brennan nine months ago, “the Agency will make no operational use of vaccination programs, which includes vaccination workers... [and] will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes.”

Referring to the CIA pledge, Dean Lynn Goldman of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, who was one of the signatories to the protest letter, was quoted saying that although she was pleased the White House took their concerns seriously, “All we can do is hope [the CIA] will honour that commitment.”

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