Pentagon to seek approval to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory

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WASHINGTON, Aug 9 (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Monday said that it will seek U.S. President Joe Biden's approval by mid-September to require 1.3 million military members to get vaccinated against COVID-19, anticipating full regulatory clearance for a vaccine by then.

After setting COVID-19 rules for federal workers, Biden last month directed the Pentagon to look into "how and when" it would require members of the military to take the vaccine.

With the move, the Biden administration deferred a coronavirus vaccine mandate for active duty troops to next month, with the expectation that the Food and Drug Administration will give full approval to the Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and BioNTech SE (22UAy.DE) vaccine.

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Currently that vaccine falls under an emergency use authorization.

"I strongly support ... the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September," Biden said in a statement.

The date could be moved up if the FDA approves the vaccine earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo. Austin said that he could recommend a different course if the situation worsened.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the vaccine could have been immediately mandated, but more than a month was allowed in the hope of full FDA approval. That action might reduce fears about the safety of the shot and political blowback from opponents of vaccine mandates.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the military did not have a deadline for all troops to be vaccinated.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that he hopes regulators could start granting full approval for the vaccines as soon as this month.

The U.S. military says around half the U.S. armed forces are already fully vaccinated, a number that climbs significantly when counting only active duty troops and excluding National Guard and reserve members.

Vaccination rates are highest in the Navy, which suffered from a high-profile outbreak last year aboard an aircraft carrier. About 73% of sailors are fully vaccinated.

That compares with the U.S. national average of about 60% of adults ages 18 and over who have been fully vaccinated.

Because U.S. troops are generally younger and fitter, relatively few U.S. servicemembers have died as a result of COVID-19 - just 28 in total, according to Pentagon data.

Many congressional Republicans have refused to say publicly whether they have been vaccinated, and some have attacked the shots as unnecessary or dangerous.

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Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Susan Heavey and Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

National security correspondent focusing on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Reports on U.S. military activity and operations throughout the world and the impact that they have. Has reported from over two dozen countries to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan.