More can and must be done, however, to rebuild trust, to avoid repeating past mistakes, and to prevent future health consequences similar to those experienced during and after the Gulf War. Our troops must be assured that when we send them into battle, they will be protected by the best military technology, the best leaders, and the best medicine. Protection also means proper education and training, as well as provision of critical information, including information about investigational new drugs that may be administered to our troops for their protection against chemical and biological threats.[i]

At the end of many hearings on Gulf War Syndrome, at the close of many inquiries into the DoD’s use of experimental and investigational drugs during the Gulf war, in 1997 Congress (finally) decided that enough was enough. Representative Patrick Kennedy (D, RI), introduced a bill on the floor of Congress to provide some small measure of protection for service members. In its original form, the bill imposed three requirements on the DoD: either prior to, or within 30 days of, administering an investigational new drug, the DoD would have to inform military members that

  1. The drug being administered is investigational;
  2. The reasons why the drug is being administered;
  3. The potential side effects of the drug, including side effects resulting from interactions of the drug with other drugs or treatments being administered to the individual.

Representative Kennedy’s remarks made clear that the bill was the direct result of inquiries into the Gulf War and what he perceived as a DoD cover-up of possible chemical exposures of U.S. troops. He noted that the trust between soldiers and the government

“has been called into question. One need merely read newspaper articles surrounding the Persian Gulf war to see what I mean. On February 28, the New York Times ran an article entitled: ‘Pentagon Reveals It Lost Most Logs on Chemical Arms;’ ‘Missing From Two Sites: Gulf War Veterans Now Raise Questions of Cover-Up or Criminal Incompetence.’”[ii]

Mr. Kennedy went on to cite another article that revealed that the Army had been warned by the CIA five years prior (to the article) about the possible exposure of troops to chemical agents and that the DoD had claimed that it only became aware of the exposures the prior year. Additionally, Kennedy referenced the DoD and FDA negotiations that took place prior to the Gulf War regarding a waiver of informed consent detailed in the previous chapter. He criticized the DoD for failing to comply with the conditions the FDA had set forth in order to grant the waiver of informed consent that the DoD legally needed and had negotiated in order to use both pyridostigmine bromide and botulinum toxoid on troops. Oddly enough, however, Kennedy then seemed to concede that the DoD could now use investigational drugs without informed consent because “[u]nfortunately, for our troops, the threat of chemical and biological weapons have become an increasing reality[.]” Mr. Kennedy seemed to believe that, at the least, “the men and women who served in the Gulf War had a right to know that the vaccines administered to them were investigational” and that “[t]he same service members had a right to know about the side effects of the investigational drugs.”[iii] As an author’s note, I feel compelled to add that Representative Kennedy did swear an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic” and “to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Which can only mean that either (a) Kennedy believed that it is perfectly fine for the U.S. government to experiment on its troops, or (b) he doesn’t know very much about the Constitution. (Both is also an acceptable and likely answer).

To his credit, however, Kennedy did introduce the bill in order “to ensure that in the future our troops are informed of investigational drugs, and to help ensure that our service members can and will trust their government.”[iv] The legislation received some discussion on the floors of both the Senate and the House, always with reference to the Congressional investigations surrounding Gulf War Illness and the mistakes made with pyridostigmine bromide.[v] Finally, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1998 (from October 1997 to October 1998), Mr. Kennedy’s proposed bill became 10 U.S.C. §1107. In something that couldn’t be made up, within a year of this bill being approved and becoming law, Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced that he would begin the inoculation of all U.S. military personnel with the anthrax vaccine.

As this vaccination program was kicking off, the Senate Armed Services committee was already calling high-ranking DoD officials to explain how the program was going to work in light of the Persian Gulf experience and even the then recent deployment of troops to Bosnia. In fact, members of the committee pointed to the Presidential Advisory Committee’s review of the DoD’s efforts in Bosnia and pointed out that they were deemed “an abysmal failure.”[vi] This committee even addressed the issue of how the DoD proposed to handle the administration of clinical protocols in accordance with FDA regulations. It is important to note that here the DoD was acknowledging that it had to comply with clinical protocol requirements of the FDA if it administered a drug in such a way as to render it an investigational new drug. An FDA official opined that “we [the FDA] believe that they [DoD officials] understand… [the need to comply with IND procedures]. We believe that they have the capability of complying with all of our IND rules and regulations.  As to whether they will comply in the next deployment situation, obviously we can’t predict that.”[vii]

The Acting Secretary of Defense for Health affairs, Gary Christopherson, tried to assuage the concerns of committee members by admitting that the Bosnia experience[1] was a “situation where we believed we ought to be able to do an IND and do it well, it still did not come off 100 percent. It did not meet their standards. It did not meet our standards in there.”[viii] He went on to add that the DoD and the FDA were engaged in a “conversation” to improve their compliance with the FDA’s regulations. In a bit of backpedaling, Mr. Christopherson implied that there was some kind of agreement between the FDA and DoD that there would not need to be full compliance with the requirements of the Nuremberg Code, the FDA’s regulations, and the DoD’s own internal regulations. He offered that “[t]he one thing that I think both FDA and we have come to somewhat – not necessarily a conclusion, but close to – is that in real combat situations it’s very difficult if not impossible to do a full investigative new drug protocol.” This did not seem to arouse much comment from any of the Senators, despite the clear implication that DoD was not going to comply with the requirements for informed consent for an IND procedure. One other question not raised (of course) was how combat would be defined. Even if the DoD were granted a waiver for combat exigencies, would Bosnia and other peacekeeping operations fit the justification given for the Gulf War?

At the same time that the Senate hearings were going on and the anthrax program (AVIP) was going forward, the FDA was also trying to determine if the interim rule that it had published to allow DoD to use investigational drugs without informed consent should become a final rule. That rule, granting the DoD waiver, was still “on the books” as the interim rule pending finalization. The FDA solicited comments by October 29, 1997. This means that (legally speaking) as late as autumn of 1997, the DoD still had a waiver from the FDA’s requirements of informed consent. The language of the rule was broad and did not specifically exempt just those two products, although that was the agreement reached in 1990. Now, as the DoD was preparing to use another investigational drug in Bosnia and not doing it particularly well, the FDA was asking whether or not the DoD should be allowed to maintain the waiver. This produced some interesting exchanges in committee hearings in Congress. In 1996, the Director of the FDA brought forward Ms. Mary Pendergast, a doctor at the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), to answer the question about this rule.

REP. NETHERCUTT:  So your conclusion five years later is that waiving the Informed consent requirements is acceptable?

PENDERGAST: Yes, basically. It’s not the preferred option, but there are some products that you cannot ethically test. . .

REP. NETHERCUTT:  Okay. I’m trying to get to now. . . as to why you feel it’s acceptable to do that.

PENDERGAST: If there is another war —

REP. NETHERCUTT: Which is prospective.

PENDERGAST: Yes. If there is another war and if there is a circumstance where the military might need to give prophylactic treatment to its troops, then we would create simply the framework that would give them the opportunity to come to the FDA to ask for permission to waive informed consent.

It’s not saying that we would waive it during peacetime; it’s not that we would automatically waive it, rather, we would create a framework that would permit them to ask for permission.

KESSLER: I think the presumption is, if it is at all possible, you get informed consent. That certainly is my personal position.[ix]

In this exchange, the head of the FDA, Dr. Ronald Kessler, asserts that informed consent would not be waived during peacetime at the same time that the FDA has on the books an interim rule that allows the DoD to waive informed consent, not just for combat, but also for the “the immediate threat of combat.”[x] How immediate would the threat have to be and what level of combat would it have to be? One can only envision that the DoD would get to make both of these determinations; certainly the FDA is not going to question a military officer’s determination that combat is imminent or immediate or of sufficient ferocity to be deemed combat.[2] Thus the rule is really no rule at all in terms of limiting the application of when the DoD can waive informed consent.

In a hearing on Bioethics in 1997, this issue came up in two ways. Dr. Arthur Caplan, a professor of BioEthics at the University of Pennsylvania, offered that “the handling of the waiver with respect to the troops was unethical.”[xi] His opinion was that even with the waiver of prior informed consent, the DoD should have informed troops after the fact, if nothing else; that “the Defense Department – and those military agencies have not – did not do what they needed to do to after the fact inform people when they were exposed to innovative or experimental substances.”[xii]

His second point of contention was that “there’s still been no formulation of a policy about what we do with respect to research on our troops. We don’t have it today.  We didn’t have it six years ago. And I find it incredible that we have not had more than an interim rule to guide us with respect to research in the military.” At the time he said this, the FDA’s interim waiver rule for 50.23(d) was still in effect. Another doctor looked back even further and questioned the underlying assumption of the waiver, which, unfortunately, more people have not done.

BENJAMIN WILFOND: I think I was not convinced this morning that they ever gave a clear reason why it was not feasible to have given – asked for consent in the first place. I mean, presumably if you ask the soldiers: You may be exposed to nerve gas. This medication may help you, but we really don’t know and would like to do a project. Would you like to participate? Most of them would probably say yes.[xiii]

Some discussion ensued and there was the usual deference about the “quick” mustering up of forces, but Dr. Wilfond continued to question the assumption: “my point is that there’s still no – it’s not clear that they couldn’t have done it ahead of time either.”[xiv]

This is an important issue that seems to have been swept away amidst the rhetoric. It is a particularly pragmatic point but deserves some attention. Every member of the Armed forces has, at one time or another, stood in line awaiting some inoculation. There is absolutely no explanation why, if a member of the Armed Forces has to stand in line to get the shot, there would not be sufficient time to obtain the member’s informed consent. Even if the requirement for written consent were waived, if medical records have to be annotated anyway, how much more difficult would it be for the corpsman or medical personnel to hand a sheet out to everyone as they are standing in line? Or, how hard would it be to include a standard medical brief along with all of the other briefs that servicemembers receive when deploying, during which the ranking surgeon explains that this is the only possible treatment for the known threat. As th two doctors pointed out in their testimony to the Congressional committee:

CAPLAN:  We took a lot of testimony at the Presidential Advisory Committee on this matter, and it was summed up fairly well by one of our people who came to testify to us who said, if someone is shooting very large bullets at you which may be filled with biological weapons, the likelihood of your refusing an antidote is zero.[xv]

Despite these committee hearings, most of which some representative of the FDA attended and concurred in the recommendations of others, the FDA had still not issued a new rule to replace the interim waiver rule from the Gulf War in late 1998. By this time, Congress had held so many hearings on the issue of informed consent and military members that it moved from the committee level onto the floor of Congress.

Representative Christopher Shays, a vocal opponent to the waiver granted to the FDA, rose as the speaker pro tempore in the House on June 16, 1998. He pointed out that there had been 13 hearings in three and-a-half years looking into Gulf War Illness. During this time, various agencies had testified in order to “try to get a handle on the problems that our Gulf War veterans have faced when they returned home. Out of the 700,000 that have returned, almost 100,000 have had some types of physical problems to deal with and have sought to have their illnesses be dealt with by the Department of Veterans Affairs.”[xvi] Mr. Shays noted that after 11 hearings, there had been a number of findings and recommendations made, among them that “the VA and the Pentagon did not properly listen to sick Gulf War veterans in terms of the possible causes of their illness[;] [that] there is no credible evidence that stress or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused the illnesses reported by many Gulf War veterans[; and] that Congress should enact legislation establishing the presumption that veterans were exposed to hazardous materials known to have been present in the Gulf War theater.”[xvii] Most importantly, Congressman Shays recommended that “the FDA should not grant a waiver of informed consent requirements allowing the Pentagon to use experimental or investigational drugs unless the President signs off and approves.[xviii] This recommendation would become the cornerstone of a new version of Representative Patrick Kennedy’s first modest legislation. Interestingly, all it really did was seek a return to the “common rule” set forth in the Department of Defense’s own regulations, the Department of Health and Human Services regulations, the FDA’s regulations (prior to the waiver), the Nuremberg Code, and the federal statute passed which codified the Nuremberg Code. All of these regulations and laws have always stated that “the informed consent of the subject is absolutely essential” and all of them stated a presumption that “informed consent is feasible except . . .” in certain limited circumstances, usually when the subject was incompetent or incapable of giving consent or in a life threatening situation where the subject could not consent.[xix] As an example, the DoD’s own regulations state, unequivocally:

Except as provided elsewhere in this policy, no investigator may involve a human being as a subject in research covered by this policy unless the investigator has obtained the legally effective informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative. An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence. The information that is given to the subject or the representative shall be in language understandable to the subject or the representative. No informed consent, whether oral or written, may include any exculpatory language through which the subject or the representative is made to waive or appear to waive any of the subject’s legal rights, or releases or appears to release the investigator, the sponsor, the institution or its agents from liability for negligence.[xx]

The FDA and DHHS regulations are identical, almost word-for-word.  Additionally, the same regulation goes on to assure the subject that the only way that informed consent could be waived is if an appropriate Institutional Review Board, composed of doctors and other experts and members of the given community, determined that

  1. The research involves no more than minimal risk to the subjects;
  2. The waiver or alteration will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of the subjects;
  3. The research could not practicably be carried out without the waiver or alteration; and
  4. Whenever appropriate, the subjects will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation.[xxi]

This language is hard to reconcile with the policy in the Gulf war that Mr. Shays noted that “our troops were ordered to take an experimental drug referred to as PB . . . It was used . . . as an experimental drug to do something it was not designed to do. Our troops did not have the option to decide whether or not to do this. They were under order. If they did not live by their order, they would be prosecuted by the military.”[xxii] Congressman Shays, looking back at that moment, probably had no idea that his words actually foreshadowed what was to come under the anthrax vaccination program that had just begun in April of 1998. Notwithstanding his intent to prevent just such matters and the legislation that was to pass later that year, the courts-martial were just beginning for those who would try to exercise the very rights being re-issued to them under the new version of 10 U.S.C. §1107.

The 1998 version of 10 U.S.C. §1107 was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1999, in October 1998. The differences between the 1997 version and the 1998 version are startling and important to note, not only for their legal effect, but for what they reveal about the rational for making the changes. The original (1997) 10 U.S.C. §1107 required the Secretary of Defense to provide written notice to service members of the use of an investigational new drug or a drug unapproved for its applied use “unless the Secretary of Defense determines that the use of written notice is impractical because of the number of members receiving the investigational new drug or drug unapproved for its applied use, time constraints, or similar reasons.”[xxiii]  This means that the Secretary of Defense had almost unfettered discretion to determine that written notice was not feasible. The only condition or enforcement mechanism was that the Secretary was supposed to provide Congress a written explanation if written notice was not used. The 1998 version, however, in sharp contrast, would strike that language out (from “unless” to the end), thus eliminating anything except written notice.  The new version would then add one significant paragraph, (f) and change the current (f), the definitions section, to (g). The new paragraph, unchanged since 1998, reads as follows:

(f) Limitation and Waiver.—

(1) In the case of the administration of an investigational new drug or a drug unapproved for its applied use to a member of the armed forces in connection with the member’s participation in a particular military operation, the requirement that the member provide prior consent to receive the drug in accordance with the prior consent requirement imposed under section 505(i)(4) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 U.S.C. 355(i)(4)) may be waived only by the President. The President may grant such a waiver only if the President determines, in writing, that obtaining consent–

  • (A) is not feasible;
  • (B) is contrary to the best interests of the member; or
  • (C) is not in the interests of national security

(2) In making a determination to waive the prior consent requirement on a ground described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1), the President shall apply the standards and criteria that are set forth in the relevant FDA regulations for a waiver of the prior consent requirement on that ground.

This portion vests the decision to use or not use investigational drugs with one person and one person alone, the President of the United States. While the President appoints a cabinet member, the Secretary of Defense, to be his representative on military affairs, this law specifically lifted the power to make these decisions out of the Secretary’s hands and placed it squarely on the President.

(3) The Secretary of Defense may request the President to waive the prior consent requirement with respect to the administration of an investigational new drug or a drug unapproved for its applied use to a member of the armed forces in connection with the member’s participation in a particular military operation. With respect to any such administration –

  • (A) the Secretary may not delegate to any other official the authority to request the President to waive the prior consent requirement for the Department of Defense; and
  • (B) if the President grants the requested waiver, the Secretary shall submit to the chairman and ranking minority member of each congressional defense committee a notification of the waiver, together with the written determination of the President under paragraph (1) and the Secretary’s justification for the request or requirement under subsection (a) for the member to receive the drug covered by the waiver.

The crucial portion of this new law was quite simply that only the President could waive the requirement for informed consent. Furthermore, even if the Secretary wishes to request a waiver, he cannot delegate that request, putting him on the hook, as well, if something were to go wrong. The President could also only grant the waiver in writing, and then the Secretary has to submit a copy of the waiver and his justification for requesting it in writing to both the House and Senate Committees involved that have cognizance over military affairs AND appropriate the money for such operations.

This section thus vests political liability for the decision to waive informed consent with one person, the President. Second, it provides Congress with the weapon to veto the Presidential decision with its mightiest tool – control over the appropriations to conduct such an operation. While there is still an ongoing battle over the two provisions of the Constitution that vest control of the military in two different branches of government,[3] ultimately Congress could win such a battle by denying the funding for any military operation under its plenary power to appropriate money.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the statute that expresses the Congressional frustration with both the FDA and DoD and the intent to do something about it, comes from the enabling public law. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1999, which passed and enacted the second version of 10 U.S.C. §1107, contained two notes that would affect any existing waivers of the requirement for informed consent. The first paragraph (paragraph (2) of the 1998 act) explains that the new paragraph (f) applies to any new operation involving service members. The second of these two clauses addressed the possible “grandfathering” of any pre-existing waivers and states that

(3) <10 USC 1107 note> A waiver of the requirement for prior consent imposed under the regulations required under paragraph (4) of section 505(i) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (or under any antecedent provision of law or regulations) that has been granted under that section (or antecedent provision of law or regulations) before the date of the enactment of this Act for the administration of a drug to a member of the Armed Forces in connection with the member’s participation in a particular military operation may be applied in that case after that date only if

  • (A) the Secretary of Defense personally determines that the waiver is justifiable on each ground on which the waiver was granted;
  • (B) the President concurs in that determination in writing; and
  • (C) the Secretary submits to the chairman and ranking minority member of each congressional committee referred to in section 1107(f)(4)(C) of title 10, United States Code (as added by paragraph (1)) –

(i) a notification of the waiver;

(ii) the President’s written concurrence; and

(iii) the Secretary’s justification for the request or for the requirement under subsection 1107(a) of such title for the member to receive the drug covered by the waiver.

Thus, the statute not only looked forward to future operations, it also reached back and effectively wiped out the existing interim FDA rule and waiver that the FDA still had not changed. The FDA would update its regulations in May 1999, incorporating all of the requirements of 10 U.S.C. §1107, some 7 months after the passage of the act and some eight plus years after it issued an “interim” rule for Desert Storm.

Endnotes

[1] In the Bosnia deployment, the DoD vaccinated troops against a tickborne encephalitis with an investigational drug.

[2] This is not a game of semantics, either. Our predecessors, veterans, in Vietnam, spending time in the “Arizona Valley” near Da Nang or serving near the DMZ would hardly characterize the role of our troops in Bosnia as “combat”, yet any time a bullet flies from a hostile rifle, there is the possibility for death and harm. The FDA is certainly not going to gainsay the military in such matters.

[3] The Constitution, in Art. I, §2, names the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.  However, Art II, sec 8, grants Congress the power to make rules for the land and naval forces, to raise armies, and the power to make all necessary rules in carrying out its duties under Art II.

[i] 143 Cong. Rec. E 637, April 10, 1997 (remarks of Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island).

[ii] Id. See also https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/28/us/pentagon-reveals-it-lost-most-logs-on-chemical-arms.html

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] See, e.g., 143 Cong. Rec. H. 9137 (Oct. 23, 1997).  Section 766 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1998 contained this bill under the subtitle Persian Gulf Illness (Subtitle F).

[vi] U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Holds Hearings on the Nomination of Togo West to be Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs and U.S. Biologic Vaccines for Gulf War Veterans.  Statement of Senator Rockefeller.  March 17, 1998.

[vii] Id.  Testimony of Mr. Randolph Wykoff, Associate Commissioner for Operations, Food and Drug Administration.

[viii] Id.  Testimony of Mr. Gary Christopherson.

[ix] Testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, (March 12, 1996).

[x] 21 C.F.R. 50.23(d) (1990).

[xi] House Government Reform Committee and Subcommittee on Human Resources Holds a Hearing on Biomedical Ethics, (May 8, 1997).

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] 144 Cong. Rec. H. 4616 (June 16, 1998).

[xvii] Id.  Remarks of Congressman Shays.

[xviii] Id. (emphasis added)

[xix] See 32 CFR 216.107, 46 CFR Part 45, 21 CFR 50.23(d), 50 USC 1520a and The Nuremberg Code.

[xx] 32 CFR 219.116 (2001).  These regulations have been in place since 1991.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] 144 Cong. Rec. H. 4616 (June 16, 1998).

[xxiii] 10 USC 1107 (1997).

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