U.K.'s Choice of Smallpox Vaccine Questioned

CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--A furor has erupted over the U.K. government's choice of smallpox vaccine to protect the population in the event of a terror attack.

In April it emerged that the Department of Health had awarded a $50 million contract for millions of doses of vaccine to U.K.-based PowderJect Pharmaceuticals. Now a new report from the National Security Health Policy Center (NSHPC), a think tank in Arlington, Virginia, has sparked debate about the choice of smallpox strain that PowderJect is using to create the vaccine. The report, along with an earlier revelation that PowderJect's chief executive donated $78,000 last year to the ruling Labor party, has opposition politicians and the chair of the U.K. Parliament's science committee demanding that the government explain how it decided to proceed with the vaccine.

The PowderJect vaccine is based on the so-called Lister strain of smallpox. The new report, which assesses the efficacy of vaccines used in immunization programs around the world before smallpox was eradicated from the wild in 1980, notes that a vaccine based on this strain performed poorly during particularly virulent smallpox outbreaks in India in the early 1970s. Soviet scientists weaponized one of the vicious strains, dubbed India 1967, and some experts fear that illicit stocks of this strain still exist and could be co-opted by terrorists. Although it's unclear how effective the Lister vaccine may have been against India 1967, its generally disappointing track record in India is cause for concern. According to NSHPC director Stephen Prior, the new report suggests that the Lister strain may not be as protective against the India strains as other vaccines, such as the U.S.-favored vaccine against the NYCBH strain, which worked in India.

Citing the NSHPC report, critics of the U.K. government's handling of the contract have alleged that the Department of Health relied on flawed advice in selecting PowderJect over competing bids to make a NYCBH-based vaccine. The Department of Health has refused to release documents related to the scientific advice that it claims recommended the Lister vaccine. "We don't know if a head-to-head assessment was ever made," says Minister of Parliament Ian Gibson. He's planning to hold hearings on the matter in his Science and the Technology Select Committee, adding, "we are only in the foothills of this skirmish."

Related sites
PowderJect Pharmaceuticals
The interim report from the NHSPC