Breakthrough in research with smallpox

Army scientists infect monkeys for the first time

`It's a very valuable step'

January 26, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In a breakthrough that could lead to better vaccines and drugs to protect against bioterrorist attacks, scientists from the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick have succeeded in fatally infecting monkeys with smallpox.

The experiments, by Army scientists working at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, represent the first time that animals have developed full-blown smallpox resembling the human disease. In nature, fatal smallpox infections ordinarily occur only in people, which has forced scientists to test drugs and vaccines using similar animal diseases such as monkeypox and mousepox.

"It's a very valuable step," said Raymond Zilinskas, a bioterrorism expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "Even though they used a massive dose that wouldn't be found in nature, there's a lot that can be learned, because there's never before been an animal model for smallpox."

The unpublished research was described in an interview yesterday by Peter B. Jahrling, senior research scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who led the smallpox studies. He said he was willing to discuss it because word of the experiments leaked from a medical meeting in Canada last week and was reported by the Global Security Newswire in Washington.

The work has significant political implications, Jahrling said, strengthening the case for preserving the world's sole known remaining stocks of smallpox virus, which are at the CDC and at a Russian research institute.

"One reason people resist this research is because it provides a rationale for smallpox retention," Jahrling said. "One of the central tenets of the case for smallpox destruction has been removed."

The World Health Organization had planned to make a decision this year on destruction of all stocks of the extremely contagious virus. But last week its executive board reversed that ruling, saying smallpox stores should be preserved for research purposes.

The WHO change of heart followed a Bush administration decision in November that it would not destroy the CDC's supply of smallpox this year. But China vigorously dissented, warning that "a most devastating biological catastrophe" could result if smallpox stocks are not eliminated.

Scientists favoring destruction say they want to eliminate the chance that smallpox could fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. Those opposing destruction say countries other than the United States and Russia may have secretly preserved the virus and argue that the living organism is crucial for research on drugs and vaccines.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, a Johns Hopkins University disease specialist who headed the WHO program that eradicated smallpox as a human disease in the 1970s, has been a strong proponent of destroying the remaining stocks. But he currently serves as a top bioterrorism official in the Department of Health and Human Services, and he has publicly gone along with administration policy. He could not be reached for comment last night.

The smallpox debate is part of a larger dilemma governments and scientists face as they try to build defenses against bioterrorist attacks using smallpox, anthrax or other lethal agents.

The previously dormant bioterrorism research field is booming, with the U.S. government expected to spend $3 billion to improve biological defenses during the current budget year.

But such research often requires live viruses and bacteria that could be used as weapons. And the more places and people handling such deadly organisms, the greater the danger that they could be diverted and used in a terrorist attack.

That hazard has been underscored by the possibility that the anthrax used in mail attacks in the fall, which killed five people and sickened at least 13 others, might have a connection with a U.S. government laboratory. The mailed anthrax is a close genetic match of the Army's Ames strain anthrax, and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah has made small quantities of dry, weapons-grade anthrax in recent years.

Jahrling said he believes the government labs' security is very good and getting better, but he recognizes the paradoxical danger posed by proliferating defensive research.

"The one thing that is hard to grapple with is the possibility of a determined insider," he said. "We are being asked quite reasonably to take a hard look at the character of the people who have access to these pathogens."

Construction of new laboratories capable of handling extremely hazardous organisms is proposed at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, the University of California at Davis and Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, among other places.

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