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UK smallpox terror threat downgraded after nearly £80mn ‘wasted’ on vaccine

Published time: March 17, 2013 11:57
A nurse holds a vial of smallpox vaccine enough to inoculate 100 people (AFP Photo/Mike Nelson)

A nurse holds a vial of smallpox vaccine enough to inoculate 100 people (AFP Photo/Mike Nelson)

One of the UK’s preeminent scientists has denounced the wasting of some £80 million on smallpox vaccines. The terrorist threat of the disease – now confined to laboratories – has been changed following repeated studies showing low infection risks.

The Ministry of Defense’s quiet downgrade of the danger posed by smallpox sparked criticism from one of the country’s top scientists. “The downgrade is of a threat that should never have had an upgrade. Buying millions of doses of vaccine was a waste of money,” Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, told the Independent.

In total, the UK government spent £79 million on the anti-smallpox scheme in the early 2000s.

In official documents obtained by the paper, ministers appeared to agree, ruling that earlier preparations to counter the possible spread of smallpox were too expensive, “unwieldy” and not “proportionate” to the threat level. The Ministry of Defense and the Department of Health have simultaneously been reviewing strategies for countering a smallpox attack.

Although some stocks remain worldwide for research purposes, the virus was formally eradicated in 1980; no one has died as a result of the disease since.

No smallpox vaccinations have been necessary for around three decades. But 11 years ago, in the wake of 9/11, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered the purchase of millions of doses of the vaccination for use in a “smallpox plan.” An enormous national controversy erupted, as £32 million went to a donor for the then-ruling Labour party, Lord Drayson, whose company, Powderject, was granted a contract for the vaccine.

Professor Pennington pointed out that the slow-spreading nature of the virus and the difficulties in sourcing or manufacturing it means the threat of a virus terror attack is “far-fetched” and overstated.

In 2003, Saddam Hussein was accused of manufacturing and stockpiling the virus. However, when an investigative military team was deployed to uncover evidence of the alleged laboratory program, none was found.

Numerous studies on the transmission of smallpox have been conducted since interest in the disease increased in the early 2000s. Many have reached similar conclusions that “smallpox spreads slowly, mainly among close contacts, and that infectivity before the onset of rash was negligible,” according to study authors Martin Eichner and Klaus Dietz.

US stockpiles smallpox vaccine


Despite the threat’s downgrading in the UK, the over-stigmatization of a potential threat from smallpox is rising in the US. In the last week, it has emerged that Washington has taken orders for and is stockpiling a new smallpox drug. The drug could treat approximately 2 million of the country’s residents in the event of an attack, at a cost of between $410 and $463 million.

A small company, Siga Technologies, has been responsible for developing the drug over the past few years, and their announcement of the first delivery was made on Tuesday.

Following anthrax attacks in the US in 2001, public funding became more widely available for biodefense. However, in light of the UK downgrade and repeated medical and bacterial investigations proving its low transmission rate, it could be regarded as extremely wasteful.

“Let's say someone releases the virus in an airport and you have 50,000 sick,” said Siga CEO Eric Rose. “Vaccination can stop smallpox if it is given soon after infection.” However, research has suggested that its spread would not have this large an impact if released in an airport.

The granting of the contracts to Siga in 2011 echoed Britain’s "smallpox plan" donor scandal. Ronald O. Perelman, the controlling shareholder of the company, donated over $300,000 through a Siga affiliate to the Democratic Party during the 2008 and 2010 campaigns. Additionally, Perelman himself donated some $50,000 towards Obama’s inauguration.

The drug, known as Arestvyr, is not yet FDA-approved, excluding for use in emergencies; it has never been tested on smallpox in humans.