As if it wasn’t enough that the Untreated Syphilis Study conducted on black citizens of Tuskegee by the US Public Health Service was a demonic scandal in terms of scientific misconduct, US authorities went even further.
In 2011, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) developed a plan to capture the notorious jihadist terrorist Osama bin Laden (1957-2011): a fake hepatitis B vaccination program in Pakistan.
Even though the operation did not go as planned, it was enough to cause the distrust of health professionals who administered doses of the vaccine against polio, causing an enormous disorder in the country’s health.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, dr. Shakil Afridi worked as a senior health officer in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, but he was kidnapped and rescued only in 2008. Shortly thereafter, he and his family left the country for California, where they also did not stay for long. time, because Afridi’s medical license is not considered valid on US soil.
Upon returning to Pakistan, the doctor attended an event organized by the charity Save the Children, and it was there that he met an American woman who identified herself as Kate. In January 2011, Afridi was invited by her to start a vaccination campaign against hepatitis B in the Abbottabad region — the place where Bin Laden would die, on May 2 of that year.
The hidden objective of the campaign was to collect DNA from the citizens of the Bilal Town neighborhood, a suburb of the city, where American intelligence believed the terrorist was hiding. After the used needles were collected for disposal, CIA handlers would test them to see if any of the vaccinated children were related to bin Laden.
In March, Afridi arrived in town claiming to have funds to provide the vaccines free of charge. With government permission, he put up posters advertising the campaign all over Abbottabad, and began falsely vaccinating in Nawa Sher, one of the poorest places.
The vaccine must be administered over three doses to ensure full immunization, however, after the first one, the group, which included the doctor and some nurses, changed location and never returned. In April, the stop was at Waziristan Kothi in Bilal Town, a three-story house where the CIA believed the terrorist was hiding.
However, a month later, Bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs during an attack. Three weeks later, Afridi was arrested by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for his role in the fake vaccination campaign.
Lasting side effects
According to a National Geographic story, Afridi said during her testimony that she didn’t suspect her employer had any reason to launch a vaccination campaign in the city other than health care and research.
On May 23, 2012, the doctor was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason and aiding in violating Pakistani sovereignty. In the US, Afridi was considered something of a hero but seen as a traitor in his country. A year after the conviction, he had his sentence overturned and a retrial was ordered. In retaliation, the US cut Pakistani aid by $33 million, $1 million for each year of the doctor’s prison sentence.
While Pakistani and American authorities discussed these aspects, news of the fake vaccination campaign spread across Pakistan, causing thousands of people to refuse to vaccinate, causing a “wave” of polio cases. Many people claimed that the immunizers “were part of a Western conspiracy to sterilize Pakistani Muslims.”
Ultimately, the CIA’s deliberate misconduct made it even more difficult to administer vaccines in the country. As the BBC reported, as of 2020 Pakistan and Afghanistan have become the last two countries where polio is still a pandemic case.
In 2014, after years of repercussions, the CIA said it would “never use vaccination programs as cover for espionage operations.”