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Last Updated

27 Feb 2003

Source: Reuters, February 25, 2003

US Contracts for Safer Smallpox Vaccine

By Maggie Fox

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Citing the need for its smallpox vaccination program to include pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems and other vulnerable groups, the US government on Tuesday announced contracts with a Danish and a British company to make a safer vaccine.

The Health and Human Services Department said it had awarded contracts to Bavarian Nordic A/S of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Acambis Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a subsidiary of Britain's Acambis Plc.

The government has met tough resistance in its drive to give the current smallpox vaccine, which is made using a live virus related to the smallpox virus, to select health care workers and the military.

The virus, vaccinia, is usually harmless, but in people with suppressed immune systems -- such as cancer patients, those with HIV and some pregnant women -- vaccinia can cause severe and even deadly side effects.

Routine smallpox vaccination in the United States stopped in 1972 and the disease was deemed eradicated in 1980. But the US government now believes a biological attack using smallpox is possible, and even more likely if there is a war against Iraq. Iraq is believed by the United States to have developed a number of biological weapons, perhaps including smallpox.

The military is in the process of vaccinating up to half a million troops, and states are supposed to be vaccinating up to 450,000 health care workers who will then vaccinate larger groups if there is an outbreak.

Currently, the Wyeth DryVax vaccine is being used, but the search is on for a vaccine that is safe for everyone.

The US health department said it was spending $20 million on two three-year contracts to the rival companies, both of which are already developing smallpox vaccines, to help them develop safer vaccines.

"To protect ourselves from the remote, but extremely grave, threat of a deliberate release of smallpox virus, we need a vaccine that can be safely given to all Americans, including individuals with weakened immune systems, children and pregnant women," Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement.

The companies will work on a formula using a weakened form of vaccinia called modified vaccinia virus Ankara, or MVA.

An MVA vaccine worked safely in Germany in the 1970s, but the program was scrapped when smallpox was eradicated.

The US smallpox vaccination program is off to a much slower start than anticipated. Thompson had predicted that most, if not all, 450,000 health workers would be vaccinated by this week, one month after starting.

However, as of last week, only 4,213 people had been vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I'm disappointed by the response," Thompson told reporters last week. He said people did not understand what a threat smallpox is.

"I think we need to do a better job to convince them this is a risk," he said.

Unions and other groups representing health care workers have opposed the vaccination program because it does not provide for compensation and time off for workers made sick by the vaccine. Thompson said his department was working with Congress to develop a plan to cover these concerns.

"As soon as we get a compensation fund out there I think it is going to move quickly," he said.