The Bush administration yesterday signed a contract to buy 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine from a British firm in case terrorists tried to spread the deadly virus.
The contract with Acambis Inc. will bring the nation’s stockpile of the vaccine to 286 million doses by the end of next year, promising protection for every American should bioterrorists ever attack with the all-but-extinct virus.
“While the probability of an intentional release of the smallpox virus is low, the risk does exist and we must be prepared,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement.
The vaccine could be administered four days after exposure to smallpox, but officials had no plans to resume the routine vaccinations of Americans that ceased in 1972.
The government has 15.4 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand, and each dose will be diluted to create five doses, bringing the on-hand total to 77 million. Researchers are studying whether each existing dose could be further diluted to generate 10 doses.
An additional 54 million doses have been ordered from Acambis; they are expected to be delivered next year.
The new contract will cost the government $428 million, or $2.76 per dose. That is less than the $509 million that the Bush administration has asked from Congress to pay for the new vaccine.
The initial budget request assumed that the government would need to buy 250 million doses, but new research found that the existing vaccine could be safely diluted, meaning less new vaccine was needed.
“Expanding our stockpile so there is a smallpox vaccine for every American if needed prepares us to respond aggressively to minimize the spread of the disease should an outbreak occur,” Mr. Thompson said. “Additionally, we hope that increasing our smallpox vaccine stockpile would serve as a deterrent to those who might consider using smallpox as a weapon against us.”
Smallpox hadn’t appeared in the United States since 1949, and was declared eradicated from the globe in 1980.