Over a year after public health officials wrote to President Obama in anger that the United States had been using “sham vaccination campaign[s]” as a front for espionage, a White House official has pledged that the CIA will no longer use immunization programs as cover for spying operations.
Three years ago, the CIA set up a fake hepatitis vaccination program in Pakistan to assist in the efforts to find Osama Bin Laden. The program was instituted in hopes to obtain DNA evidence from members of Bin Laden’s family, who were thought to be living in the expansive compound he was later found in, though the operation itself failed to determine whether or not Bin Laden was in fact in the compound. The fake immunization operation was run by Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani physician, who was convicted and sentenced by Pakistani court to 33 years in prison for treason, which was later overturned and set for retrial. While in custody, Afridi told interrogators that he had been introduced to CIA officers in Pakistan by an employee of Save the Children. While both groups have denied the allegation, dozens of public health workers in Pakistan suspected of being spies have been killed and Save the Children has closed its operation in Pakistan.
The use of vaccination campaigns for espionage has the potential to derail major international public health concerns. On Monday, the World Health Organization declared for the first time ever that the spread of polio a world health emergency. While it will be near impossible to know for sure if the CIA will remain uninvolved in vaccination programs since secrecy is a necessity in any covert operation, it is imperative that the United States at the very least gives the appearance of remaining unconnected to immunization programs. Our previous impropriety continues to overshadow the good that health organizations are attempting to accomplish, putting workers and those affected by these diseases in harm’s way. As curable diseases continue to spread rapidly, it is imperative that we reassure the global community our vaccination programs are not shams, but are aimed at one goal: to eradicate curable and deadly diseases.
Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research