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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Agrees to Buy More Smallpox Vaccine Doses

Medicine: The hope is that the stockpile will deter any potential bioterrorist, federal health officials say.

November 29, 2001|EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Wednesday it has contracted with a small British biotechnology firm to buy enough smallpox vaccine to inoculate every American by the end of next year, though it has no current plans to do so.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the government will pay $428 million for 155 million doses of a smallpox vaccine being developed by Acambis, a struggling pharmaceutical firm based in Cambridge, England.

"By signing this contract, we have created a stockpile of security against the smallpox virus," Thompson said.

The government said it has no plans to resume widespread smallpox inoculations, which ended in the United States in 1972. The last case of smallpox in the U.S. was in 1949 and the virus was deemed to have been eradicated worldwide in 1980.

But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have renewed fears that the deadly virus might be deliberately released as part of a bioterrorism campaign.

Such concerns were heightened by the recent anthrax attacks, and government health officials have been negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for several weeks to increase supplies of the vaccine.

Health officials stressed that there have been no cases of smallpox and there is little reason for public anxiety.

"We hope that increasing our smallpox vaccine stockpile would serve as a deterrent to any individual terrorist who would consider using smallpox as a weapon against us," Thompson said.

The government will pay $2.76 a dose, or $428 million, which is below the $509 million already budgeted by the White House and Congress.

Delivery of the vaccine is expected to begin next fall and be completed by the end of the year. The new supplies are in addition to a previous contract, also with Acambis, to provide 54 million doses.

The government also has about 15.4 million doses of an older vaccine that has been stockpiled since the 1980s. Researchers are optimistic that they will be able to dilute the older vaccine, increasing the number of doses to 77 million. Preliminary tests suggest that the dilution does not reduce the vaccine's effectiveness.

Combined, that would give the government 286 million doses, or enough for every American.

The government contract was a bonanza for tiny Acambis, which beat out larger rivals Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline. Thompson said Acambis offered a cheaper price and faster delivery than the other companies, but he would not provide specifics.

The 9-year-old Acambis, which also has an office in Cambridge, Mass., lost $16 million last year on revenue of about $9 million. It is also working on vaccines for West Nile disease and dengue fever.

"In terms of contracts, this is the largest we've ever had," Acambis spokeswoman Lyndsay Wright said. "This will make us profitable next year."

She said the company will hire additional workers and "do what we need to do" to fill the U.S. order. Wright noted that Acambis has been working on a smallpox vaccine since last year, when it won the first contract with the U.S. government.

Baxter International will work as a subcontractor, helping to produce the vaccine at its facility in Europe.

The new vaccine must be tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA officials said Wednesday they would make the smallpox vaccine a priority but would not waive any safety requirements or provide exemptions from clinical trials.

"We think we serve the American people best when we stick to our standards," said Dr. Murray M. "Mac" Lumpkin, acting deputy FDA commissioner. "We intend to treat this product as we would any other product coming down the pike."

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an updated smallpox response plan to help prepare public health officials for a potential outbreak caused by terrorists.

Though the CDC is vaccinating some of its employees who would be expected to respond to a smallpox scare, the agency does not recommend widespread smallpox vaccination, because the health risks posed by the vaccine are still greater than the risk of catching the virus. The vaccine can cause serious problems, even death, in some people.

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