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Last week, President Biden raised eyebrows when he announced that federal civilian workers would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or face measures such as frequent testing, yet did not extend that mandate to members of the military. Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains the military’s history of experimental medicine — and why its approach to the COVID-19 vaccine makes sense.

Video Transcript

JONATHAN MORENO: Infectious disease is maybe the oldest enemy of organized military forces. Any commander knows that infectious disease is a constant problem. And the functioning of our national security system does require that we minimize the effects of any pandemic, including this one. Particularly with what we’ve learned about the Delta variant, and the fact that it is highly infectious. President Biden has said–

JOE BIDEN: I’m asking the Defense Department to look into how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations our armed forces must get.

JONATHAN MORENO: And that’s pretty much what’s happening in the rest of the country as well, and major organizations. This is not a case where people are being required to be human Guinea pigs. Nobody wants that, and we’re very sensitive to that since the 1960s when hallucinogens like LSD were used experimentally with military personnel.

– There was much laughter as the group attempted to give expression to inner emotion.

JONATHAN MORENO: We’re not doing that. This is not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about is a standard public health preventive measure that’s being used throughout the society. In this case, mandatory doesn’t mean compulsory. Mandatory means if you can’t or won’t be vaccinated, then you need to wear a mask, you need to watch your social distance, and you need to submit to regular testing. There’s no question about that. It would be easier for lots of organizations, including the military to mandate the vaccine if the FDA finishes its internal processes about getting to full authorization.

Because when you’re in the military, although you give up a lot of your rights, including, you know, the right not to be shot at in a battle, which you and I have as civilians, you don’t give up all your rights. You still have to be treated respectfully. And so only at the very highest levels of government can inform consent for an experiment to be waived. The president could compel without informed consent people in uniform to be vaccinated. That was done in the late 1990s with anthrax vaccination. Some people left the service because of that. We’re not talking about that here.

This is trying to get everybody on board with what is now standard public health practice, to get over that goal line, and to give people the sense that they are being respected, and that they have an alternative. It’s not compulsory. It’s mandatory. If you can’t or won’t do it, there are these other things that we’ll ask you to do. But you know, millions and millions of people around the world have taken these vaccines. We know what they can do. And we know how minuscule the problems are. We also know how grave the problems are for individuals and for whole societies if people aren’t vaccinated.

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