UM lab testing smallpox vaccine

Volunteers get shots in national study of ways to stretch supply

November 06, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

They were motivated by both patriotism and fear. And so 20 volunteers trooped into a Baltimore lab yesterday to endure 15 jabs in the shoulder with a forklike, two-pronged needle as part of a smallpox vaccine study.

The volunteers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine are among the 680 people joining studies at four research universities, where scientists are trying to help the federal government build up the nation's defenses against biological attack.

Because of the recent anthrax scare, government officials are looking at ways to stretch supplies of smallpox vaccine if terrorists unleash the deadly virus.

Participants say they have altrustic reasons to be guinea pigs. Some acknowledge, too, that it's a great opportunity to protect themselves.

"Not that I really expect smallpox to be used by terrorists, but if they do I'd much rather be safe than sorry," said Steven Ray, a graduate student scheduled to be immunized today at the University of Rochester.

The disease has killed hundreds of millions of people over the centuries, scarring faces and bodies with grotesque, painful boils.

U.S. health officials stopped vaccinating children against the disease in 1972 because a worldwide campaign had all but eradicated the scourge. The last case was in Somalia in 1977.

But since the anthrax attacks began last month, federal health officials have become concerned that terrorists might obtain the smallpox virus. The United States and Russia have frozen samples of the bug, but bioterrorism experts fear that Iraq and North Korea might also have supplies.

The United States has about 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine, enough for about one in every 20 Americans. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, is holding talks with drug companies aimed at producing 300 million doses of vaccine, enough for every American.

That could take a year or more, experts predict. In the interim, watering down the vaccine might be the only protection available in case of an outbreak.

Even people older than 29 who were vaccinated against smallpox as children might be vulnerable to smallpox today. Scientists think immunity lasts about 10 years.

Dr. Carol O. Tacket, a scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development, said she finds it sad that she and other researchers are again looking to battle smallbox.

"The eradication of smallpox in the 1970s was a great achievement of public health, and to have that achievement potentially reversed in the context of a terrorist attack is very sad," Tacket said.

After reading advertisements for the vaccine study in local newspapers, about 300 people called Tacket's lab asking to volunteer, she said.

The majority of the callers were turned away. The researchers wanted people ages 18 to 32 who have never been vaccinated.

"There seem to be two motivations that people have," Tacket said. "One is patriotism or altruism, and the other is fear. And I think that both are present in a lot of people."

The first 20 of the 171 volunteers whom the University of Maryland intends to vaccinate visited Tacket's lab yesterday. The vaccine was taken from a vial more than 30 years old, its label slightly yellowed with age, that was sent from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Tacket dipped a tiny fork into the vial, then pricked it 15 times into the shoulder of each volunteer.

Half of the volunteers received vaccine that was diluted to one-tenth strength; the others received one-fifth strength vaccine or full-strength vaccine.

Researchers hope blisters will erupt on the recipients' shoulders within seven to 10 days. That would mean that the volunteers have been successfully inoculated - that they have developed antibodies to fight off the virus - and that the solutions were concentrated enough to ward off future smallpox infections, Tacket said.

Researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, the St. Louis University School of Medicine and the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas are conducting similar studies.

An earlier test of 60 volunteers at St. Louis University found that 70 percent of those given one-tenth-strength smallpox vaccine were successfully immunized, compared with 95 percent of those given the full-strength vaccine.

None of the Maryland volunteers was available to be interviewed.yesterday.

Some University of Rochester volunteers described their reasons for signing up. Five hundred people called the university seeking enrollment in the study, twice as many as could be accommodated, a university spokesman said.

"My rationale is that I wanted to do something to help out with the threat of bioterrorism," said John Paul Masly, 25, a biology graduate student at the University of Rochester. "I'm healthy, and I'm happy to help, and I'd like to know if the vaccine could be successfully diluted and extended."

Jeffrey Bush, a 24-year-old doctoral candidate, said he was half motivated by altruism. He was also looking out for himself, he said.

"I am interested in being vaccinated in part because I think smallpox is a real risk and I'd like to be protected," he said.

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