Bioethics committee debates anthrax vaccine trial

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues met on Friday to assess the ethics of an anthrax vaccine trial on children to determine the vaccine's efficacy in case of a bioterrorist attack.

While the shots were proven to be safe in approximately 1.2 million vaccinated adults in the military, children ethically complicate clinical trials because participants are supposed to fully grasp the purposes and risks of a trial prior to enrolling. In addition, a pediatric anthrax vaccine trial is unlikely to yield direct benefits to the participants due to the small chance that an anthrax attack will occur, Nature reports.

"The chance that we would have a widespread outbreak of anthrax are relatively low, but if anthrax were weaponized, it would be catastrophic," Larry Gostin, a representative of the O'Neill Institute Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights in Washington DC, said, according to Nature. "From a public-health perspective, it's right to think about the best way to prevent these hazards."

Not all of the experts were convinced that an anthrax trial would pay off.

"If the argument is that a pre-event study is better," Robert Nelson, a pediatric ethicist at the US Food and Drug Administration, said, according to Nature. "I need to know the science behind why that is."

Kathleen Sebelius, the HHS secretary, thanked the bioethics committee for taking on such an important matter.

"Your work is critically important to the 300 million people or so who are not in the room today," Sebelius said, according to Nature. "And I thank you on their behalf because your work affects their lives whether they know it or not."

The committee anticipates that it will finalize its decision by early 2013.