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Girding for Smallpox

22 October 1999 7:00 pm
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U.S. health agencies appear ready to plow more cash into reducing one type of bioterrorist risk--an attack with the infamous smallpox virus. On 20 October, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) invited scientists to apply for grants under three defense initiatives related to the "orthopoxviruses," a family of infectious agents that includes smallpox. All three offers, says NIAID virology branch chief Catherine Laughlin, are designed to continue a biodefense initiative started last year.

NIAID wants to spend $500,000 to create an "orthopoxvirus genomics and bioinformatics resource center" that would help the search for smallpox therapies and new vaccines. Another $350,000 is in the offing for the development of treatments that counteract side effects of the current smallpox vaccine. Because it is based on a live virus, that vaccine can trigger an aggressive infection in people whose immune systems are weak--such as AIDS patients, people undergoing immunosuppression for cancer therapy, and very young children. Finally, NIAID has $1.5 million on hand for researchers interested in looking for new drugs that combat orthopoxvirus infection. At present, there are no practical therapies.

Although smallpox has essentially been eradicated from the globe, the Clinton Administration is concerned that a terrorist group or a "rogue" nation like Iraq might try to exploit the virus for political purposes. Because vaccination against the disease stopped here in the 1960s, U.S. citizens would be particularly vulnerable to infection if exposed to the virus. Currently, stocks of vaccine and vaccine-related therapeutics are aging and in short supply. NIAID hopes the research will lead to new products that can be used to rebuild those stockpiles. Applications for funding must be submitted by 19 January 2000.

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