The White House has announced that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is no longer conducting fake vaccination campaigns, which the World Health Organization blames for contributing to the resurgence of the polio virus. The CIA previously employed the controversial tactic in Pakistan, where they collected DNA from children as part of the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The AFP reported yesterday:
President Barack Obama's top White House anti-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco told deans of 13 U.S. schools of public health that CIA chief John Brennan had directed last year that agents would "make no operational use of vaccination programs."
"Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programs."
"This CIA policy applies worldwide and to US and non US persons alike."
The Guardian highlights the fact that "Monaco's letter and the CIA statement did not acknowledge any error in the decision to use the Pakistan vaccine program as a spying cover." When the operation was revealed in 2011, an unnamed federal official contended that if the CIA "hadn't shown this kind of creativity, people would be scratching their heads asking why it hadn't used all tools at its disposal to find bin Laden."
Nevertheless, various aid organizations and individuals have for years warned that it could endanger legitimate vaccination efforts. In 2011, when the CIA program was brought to light, Wired's Maryn McKenna argued that while "there is no evidence the 'vaccinations' produced DNA that helped identify bin Laden," they did add fuel to already widespread anti-vaccination conspiracies throughout the developing world. The New York Times reported this month that "Taliban factions have forbidden vaccinations" in certain areas of Pakistan, threatening to kill vaccination workers.
Although proving a causal relationship would be difficult, there have been numerous terrorist attacks on legitimate vaccination campaigns in recent years. Three workers have been killed in Pakistan in 2014.
The White House's letter comes several days after the Pakistani government laid partial blame on the CIA for the virus's rise and less than two weeks after a WHO Emergency Committee issued a statement that the debilitating disease is spreading at an alarming rate:
The current situation stands in stark contrast to the near-cessation of international spread of wild poliovirus from January 2012 through the 2013 low transmission season for this disease (i.e. January to April). If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world's most serious vaccine preventable diseases.
Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon are at center of the epidemic and WHO says that there's "increasing evidence that adult travelers" to and from these countries are carrying the disease elsewhere.
Blame does not rest solely with the intelligence agency. Developing countries often have limited resources and the disease itself is has been described as akin to "trying to squeeze Jell-O to death." And it is terrorist groups who are directly preventing vaccinations, not the CIA.