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Aventis to Donate Smallpox Vaccine

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The pharmaceutical company Aventis will donate a huge batch of smallpox vaccine to the U.S. government, potentially expanding the nation's supply of the vaccine almost six-fold. The company announced the gift this morning at a press briefing at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contribution adds an estimated 85 million doses to the national stockpile, said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson--provided tests show that it is safe and effective.

Details of the agreement are still being worked out, but Aventis and HHS decided to announce the deal after The Washington Post reported on the secret cache (ScienceNOW, 28 March). Aventis Pharma CEO Richard Markham today denied reports that the supply had recently been discovered in the company's freezers, explaining that Aventis had known about the vaccine for years and had been discussing its fate with the U.S. government. The vaccine was produced 40 years ago at the request of the U.S. Department of Defense, but the Pentagon never actually acquired or paid for the material, says Aventis Vice President Michael Decker.

Aventis offered the vaccine to the government for free after the anthrax attacks last October. It has already repackaged the vaccine--stored in about 60, 2-liter bottles at -20°C--into standard vials containing about 100 doses each. Preliminary tests show that the vaccine, a relatively harmless virus called vaccinia, is still viable, and about as potent as the 15 million doses of Dryvax, the vaccine already in the U.S. stockpile. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health will test its safety and efficacy on healthy volunteers.

Researchers will also test whether the supply can be diluted. A study published yesterday (ScienceNOW, 28 March) showed that Dryvax can be diluted by 10-fold without losing its punch. If that's also true for the Aventis batch, the U.S. government could soon have more than enough for the country's 286 million residents.

The U.S. has also ordered 209 million doses of a vaccine produced using modern-day production techniques from a Massachusetts company called Acambis. Thompson says that those doses, expected to be ready by the end of the year, would allow the government to stockpile some of the older vaccine supplies for possible use around the world.

Related sites
Aventis press release about the donation HHS press release
Results of the dilution study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine