Magazine article Insight on the News

A New Defense for an Old Enemy

Magazine article Insight on the News

A New Defense for an Old Enemy

Article excerpt

Experts thought smallpox had been eradicated, but the threat that it might be resurrected as a biological weapon has forced the U.S. government to take preventative steps.

The upsurge of global terrorism has focused the attention of the U.S. government upon the danger of low-technology biological threats, especially smallpox agents. Facing a shortage of smallpox vaccine to counter such a threat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has contracted with Oravax, a firm in Cambridge, Mass., to produce a new vaccine.

"Smallpox poses the most serious bioterrorist threat to the civilian population and so deserves special consideration," says D.A. Henderson, a physician who formerly headed the World Health Organization (WHO) smallpox-eradication program. "None of the other potential agents combine the attributes of a high case-fatality rate (30+ percent) and an ability to spread from person to person throughout the population in any part of the world. Moreover, there is no therapeutic agent for the treatment of smallpox and only limited supplies of vaccine are available for epidemic control."

The CDC's 20-year contract, worth a total of $343 million, calls for initial production of a 40 million-dose stockpile. The vaccine will be produced in large-scale cell cultures and Oravax will be responsible for pre-clinical and clinical testing of the vaccine, which will be licensed by the Food and Drug Administration. But the first deliveries are not expected until 2004.

In the short term the United States requires about 40 million doses to be able to respond to a bioterrorist attack. The current vaccine, Dryvax, was prepared from cowpox virus (Vaccinia) inoculated into the flanks of calves living on the open range. The pus was harvested and dried to produce a highly concentrated vaccine back in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of the relatively crude production methods, the vaccine never would be approved for human use today, but it is all that is available in the short term.

The first intentional use of smallpox as a weapon occurred during the French and Indian War (1754-63) on the North American continent. British forces distributed blankets used by smallpox patients to American Indians. The resulting epidemics killed more than half of many affected tribes. …

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