PUBLIC health experts in America are in the early stages of discussions with pharmaceutical companies about manufacturing and stockpiling the smallpox vaccine as a defence against biological terrorists.
Officials at the US Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) say they are collaborating with the US defence department on the development stages of such a proposal.
"It is part of the movement to be able to respond, if necessary, in a bioterrorism event," said a spokesperson for CDC in Atlanta, Georgia.
The proposal for which a contract is expected to be awarded in the autumn is part of Americ'as continued focus on building up its defences against a possible attack involving biological weapons.
Concerns are focused especially on such disease agents as anthrax, which can be spread by inhaled spores, smallpox and botulism. While there are vaccines or treatments for these diseases, they do not exist in quantities that would be needed and stockpiling is, therefore, a central part of a country's defence strategy. This year alone the US Department of Health & Human Services is spending $278m to fund preparations for such an event.
The US fear of bioterrorist attack is not shared in the UK. A spokesperson for the Home Office said that, while the British government is prepared for a bioterrorist attack, it considers the threat low.
According to defence experts, three key events lie behind the growing concern: the revelation by a Russian migr that the former Soviet Union had run a huge programme to develop bio-weapons; the discovery after the Gulf war that Iraq had an extensive biological warfare programme; and activities of the Aum Shinrykyo sect, which was responsible for releasing nerve gas in Tokyo's subway in 1995, and which also experimented with botulism toxin and anthrax.
These events also led, in part, to president Clinton's decision in 1998 to order federal agencies to take steps to significantly expand protection against the consequences of biological and other unconventional attacks.
Opinion among US defence experts about the likelihood of a bioterrorist attack are, nevertheless, divided. While some believe an attack unlikely and warn against overhyping the threat, others say it is very much a case of "when" rather than "if", pointing to the accessibility of information on how to prepare such weapons. …