Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says he's seeking $509 million from Congress to buy vaccine from four drug companies with the capacity to produce the doses. Thompson says he hopes the order will be filled sometime next year, but there are no immediate plans to start vaccinating people. Thompson is also asking for an additional $700 million to bolster the nation's preparedness against bioterrorism in general.
"Part of this money that I'm requesting from Congress right now is to accelerate the purchase of some additional vaccine for smallpox by quite a large amount, so that we can make sure that all Americans will be covered," Thompson told the CBS Early Show.The government now has about 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand. Thompson says that pool could be safely diluted to cover almost 80 million people in the event of an outbreak. The vaccine can be used both to prevent and to treat infection with the virus.
Routine vaccination against smallpox ended in the United States in 1972, and the World Health Organization declared the naturally occurring virus eradicated worldwide in 1980. But the pathogen has been kept alive in government labs both in this country and Russia, and possibly in Iraq and North Korea, say experts. Terrorism experts have long feared the devastation that would follow the release of the organism on an unvaccinated population -- or an undervaccinated one. The vaccine's effectiveness may wane after 15 to 20 years, so even people who were immunized may be at risk.
While bioterrorism experts say an attack with anthrax bacteria is certainly worthy of intense concern, they are much more worried about the still-hypothetical threat of a smallpox outbreak. Unlike the bacteria, which are not contagious, the virus passes like wildfire between people. To stop it, disease investigators must find its source (no easy task), quarantine those who might have been exposed, and treat huge numbers of people with the vaccine.
Smallpox is no stranger to germ warfare. During the French and Indian War, British troops were alleged to have given Indians smallpox-infested blankets, although doubters have said the British didn't know the blankets carried disease.
In July of this year, the government staged, "Dark Winter," a simulated attack on Oklahoma City in which the weapon of choice was smallpox. The exercise, held at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, left thousands "dead" in days, and thousands more "infected" with the virus, which crossed state lines and showed little sign of slowing down.
General Dennis J. Reimer (Ret.), director of the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, based in Oklahoma City, says "Dark Winter" clearly showed that the United States was "unprepared to handle" a widespread outbreak of smallpox.
Indeed, after "Dark Winter" the government sped up its timetable for acquiring another 40 million doses of pox vaccine and expanded the order by many millions, Reimer says. Those doses are being produced.
Reimer, whose group helped sponsor the simulation, says Thompson's new call for vaccine is a "very prudent step," and that the simulation could even be seen to support a return to routine immunization against the killer organism.
Doug Petkus, a spokesman for Wyeth-Lederle Laboratories, which made the smallpox vaccine Dryvax until the 1980s, says his company has had "several contacts" recently with "various groups in the government." But he would not say whether Wyeth is among the firms that will produce vaccine for the stockpile.
"We've been in discussions with the government for the past several weeks to see how we can be helpful as it relates to our expertise," says Petkus. Wyeth is a division of American Home Products.
What To Do
For more on bioterrorism and what officials are trying to do to stop it, try the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For more on how to defend against bioterrorism, visit the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies or the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
For more on the various bioterror weapons, try the American Medical Association.