Drug company donating smallpox vaccine to U.S.

Aventis agrees to give doses for 75 million shots

March 30, 2002|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A pharmaceutical company agreed yesterday to donate more than 75 million doses of smallpox vaccine to the U.S. government, greatly speeding federal health officials toward their goal of being able to vaccinate every U.S. resident in the event of an outbreak of the deadly disease.

The doses had been stockpiled at the Swiftwater, Pa., branch of the French vaccine maker Aventis Pasteur since the United States ended its mandatory inoculation program in 1972. Federal health officials said they believed the doses were potent but the vaccine must undergo further testing.

Smallpox was eradicated worldwide in the late 1970s but is considered one of the most dangerous of potential bioterrorist threats; U.S. officials say they cannot be certain that former Soviet stockpiles of the virus did not fall into hostile hands.

Last fall, the U.S. government ordered 154 million additional smallpox vaccine doses at a cost of $2.76 per dose from Acambis, a British pharmaceutical company that previously had been contracted to provide 54 million doses of the vaccine by 2004 or 2005.

All those doses are due to be delivered by year's end.

The announcement of immediate access to additional doses, valued by company officials at $150 million, comes a day after federal health officials announced they would be able to dilute the existing 15.4 million doses in the U.S. stockpile, making it possible to vaccinate five times as many people with the supply on hand.

The Washington Post first reported the existence of the vaccine Thursday, saying the Aventis stockpile had been "long forgotten" in the company's freezers.

A company spokesman, however, said the U.S. government has known about the supply for years and the company offered the doses to federal officials shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Before the terrorist and anthrax attacks, Aventis had considered destroying the supply.

"Since mid-October we have had numerous discussions with ... government agencies," said Aventis spokesman Len Lavenda. "This was not stumbled upon, a janitor did not find it sweeping a hallway, but there are a number of reasons it was not publicly exposed."

Thompson said yesterday that the existence of the Aventis stock was kept quiet because federal officials did not want to raise expectations about the available doses of the vaccine until they knew the 30-year-old batches would work.

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