Members of the US military will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine beginning next month under a plan laid out by the Pentagon and endorsed by President Joe Biden.
In memos distributed to all troops on Monday, top Pentagon leaders said the vaccine is a necessary step to maintain military readiness.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the mid-September deadline could be accelerated if the vaccine receives final FDA approval or infection rates continue to rise.
“I will seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon” licensure by the Food and Drug Administration “whichever comes first,” Mr Austin said in his memo, warning them to prepare for the requirement.
The Pentagon plan provides time for the FDA to give final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, which is expected early next month. Without that formal approval, Mr Austin needs a waiver from President Biden to make the shots mandatory, and Mr Biden has already made clear he supports it.
Mr Austin’s decision reflects similar moves by governments and companies around the world, as nations struggle with the highly contagious delta variant that has sent new US cases, hospitalisations, and deaths surging to heights not seen since last winter.
The concerns are especially acute in the military, where service members live and work closely together in barracks and on ships, increasing the risks of rapid spreading. Any large virus outbreak in the military could affect America’s ability to defend itself in any security crisis.
Mr Austin warned that if infection rates rise and potentially affect military readiness, “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if l feel the need to do so. To defend this nation, we need a healthy and ready force.”
In a statement on Monday, Mr Biden said he strongly supports Austin’s message to the force and the plan to add the COVID vaccine “to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September”.
Mr Biden said the country is still on a wartime footing and “being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”
The US is averaging about 108,000 new infections and 700,000 vaccines administered a day.
The decision will add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of other inoculations that service members are already required to get. Depending on their location, service members can get as many as 17 different vaccines.
According to the Pentagon, more than one million troops are fully vaccinated and another 237,000 have received one shot. But the military services vary widely in their vaccination rates.
Military service officials have said they don’t collect data on the number of troops who have refused other mandated vaccines, such as anthrax, hepatitis, chicken pox or flu shots over the past decade or more.
According to defence officials, senior military leaders support making the shot mandatory.