posted 09-21-2000 11:50 AM
Original article from Financial Times (ft.com)
Peptide to supply smallpox vaccine to US Government
By David Pilling
Fears of bio-terrorism have prompted the US government to order 40m doses of vaccine against smallpox - a disease "eradicated" more than 20 years ago.
Barbara Reynolds of the Centers for Disease Control, the Atlanta-based government agency, said: "There is increasing concern about bio-terrorism." Of a possible smallpox attack, she said: "Even though there may only be a low probability of it occuring, if it did occur it would be catastrophic."
US defence officials have long feared laboratory samples of smallpox might have fallen into the hands of potential terrorists or rogue states.
The last case of smallpox was eliminated in Somalia in 1977. Samples have been stored in laboratories in the US and Russia. This year, the US opposed plans to destroy remaining specimens.
Attention was refocused on smallpox in the early 1990s after a Soviet defector told US authorities that Moscow had a big bio-warfare programme, including smallpox.
Fears within the US administration were heightened following wide circulation of The Cobra Event, a fictional account of a bio-terrorist attack on New York. The book, published in the late-1990s, mentions smallpox as a real threat.
A small UK biotechnology company, Peptide Therapeutics of Cambridge, will make a stockpile of smallpox vaccine to be used on civilians if the virus is ever released. Plans are under way to produce a separate batch for the military. Peptide plans to market the vaccine to other governments, including Israel.
Smallpox is highly infectious, fatal in a third of cases. It is estimated to have killed 500m people in the first 75 years of the 20th century.
The disease was eradicated using a modified form of a vaccine developed by Edward Jenner, a British scientist, in 1796. Jenner made a vaccine using scabs from the hands of milkmaids after noticing that they rarely suffered from the facial scarring associated with smallpox. The disease probably resided in cow udders.
Peptide's vaccine, which should be ready in 2004, is based on the related vaccinia virus strain. The contract is worth an estimated $343m over 20 years.
Lance Gordon, vice-president of OraVax, the US subsidiary of Peptide, said that, in the case of terrorist attack, the vaccine would be used to create a "firewall" of immunity, preventing the virus from spreading.
Because smallpox vaccine has not been made since the 1970s, the new batch must be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Volunteers will be tested for their antibody response and examined to see if the vaccine has "taken" - leaving a ring of bumps on the arm.The vaccine might also be tested on monkeys with a related monkey pox.
Since the disease does not exist, it is impossible to test the vaccine's efficacy. Dr Gordon said: "The only way we'll test it is if some idiot releases smallpox into mankind again."