Washington (CNSNews.com) - A Pennsylvania firm's donation of between 85 and 90 million doses of smallpox vaccine will nearly double the country's emergency supply to handle any outbreak of the deadly disease, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Friday.
The last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949 and the World Health Organization declared the disease "eradicated" worldwide in 1980, according to HHS.
However, there is new emphasis being paid to stocking up on the smallpox vaccine since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the nation's anthrax scare and amid the threat that other terrorists may use biological agents such as smallpox to launch another attack.
While stressing that an outbreak of smallpox was highly unlikely, Thompson said it was the responsibility of HHS to make certain enough vaccine was available if a sudden outbreak did occur.
"The Department of Health and Human Services intends to obtain between 85 and 90 million doses of smallpox vaccine from Aventis Pasteur [Inc.] if the vaccine is shown to be effective and safe to use and all indications are that it is as safe and effective as the 15.4 million doses of existing vaccine," Thompson said.
Thompson explained the smallpox vaccine stockpile is a form of insurance.
"The supply is going to bolster our emergency smallpox stockpile and provide an extra layer of protection for Americans should a smallpox outbreak occur," he said.
More tests need to be run on the vaccine being donated by Aventis Pasteur because it is approximately 40 years old, Thompson said.
"Over the past several months, our scientists have been working with Aventis on preliminary tests on the efficacy of the Aventis supply. We are very encouraged by the initial results and encouraged enough to talk to you about it today," he said.
Richard Markham, chief executive officer of Aventis, said even though the vaccine is approximately 40 years old, it was stored in a way to protect its potency. The vaccine, Markham said, is now in a secure offsite location and has been held in storage at negative twenty degrees centigrade since routine smallpox vaccinations ended in 1972.
"The vaccine has been stored appropriately at the Aventis Pasteur campus in Swiftwater, Pa. and was moved to a secure location this past fall. There has been some loss of potency but that has been calculated into the dose estimates," Markham said.
Markham also addressed the rumors that his company had stumbled upon the vaccine after forgetting about its existence.
"The vaccine was never lost," Markham said. "We knew where it was all of the time. It was in our freezers in Swiftwater. It was just that it was unimportant until the events of last fall."
Markham said there had been discussions, prior to the anthrax scare, about whether the smallpox vaccine should be destroyed.
"Thankfully, that wasn't the highest priority project that Aventis Pasteur had and we didn't go as swiftly as we do on some other things," he said.
Markham said he was excited his company could donate the vaccine, valued at $150 million, free of charge to the United States' emergency supply.
"It's very important to us - as citizens, not just in our role as a vaccine provider - to be able to make a contribution during this time of uncertainty. We hope that a dose will never be needed, but we are gratified that we will be able to contribute to the immediate need for building the stockpile," Markham said.
Thompson said the donation would be a welcomed gift.
"If we determine that the Aventis vaccine remains effective, we could substantially boost our nation's smallpox vaccine stockpile at relatively little cost to taxpayers," Thompson said.
The HHS reported there are 15.4 millions doses of smallpox vaccine currently available, but each of those doses could be diluted up to five times while retaining potency, "effectively expanding the number of individuals it could protect from the contagious disease to 77 million."
Aventis' donation could more than double the nation's existing stockpile.
Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the only medical doctor in the U.S. Senate, said he was "encouraged" by Friday's announcement.
"This, in combination with the promising dilution studies carried out at the National Institutes of Health and increased production of new vaccines, bring us much closer to our goal of better protecting Americans from this deadly disease," Frist said.
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