We live in fear of a potentially devastating release of the virus by terrorists because our current smallpox vaccine, though very effective in providing immunity, relies on using the live vaccinia (once called "cowpox") virus that is itself deadly dangerous to small percentage of the people that would be vaccinated. Though mass vaccination would make us safe from this greatest of all bioterrors, the risks and the real cost in human lives has kept us from taking this step.
Arizona State University virologist Bertram Jacobs thinks he may have a way to end the worry. Jacobs has received a $5.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health's Biodefense Partnership program to develop and test a modified smallpox vaccine that is expected to be identical in effectiveness to the current vaccine while being "treatable" for dangerous reactions.
Jacobs' partners in the grant are Dr. Jeffrey Jacobson at New York's Beth Israel Hospital and NYU; Dr. Alfred Prince, Dr. Mohamed Tarek Shata and Linda Andrus at the New York Blood Center; and Virax Holdings Limited, an Australian biomedical corporation. ASU will develop the modified vaccinia virus and do preliminary animal testing; Virax will create a clinical-grade vaccine from ASU stocks; the New York Blood Center and Beth Israel Hospital will do further animal testing and then human clinical trials.
The project aims to sidestep a problem that has prevented weaker, less dangerous vaccinia strains from being used as smallpox vaccines: they can not be tested for effectiveness because smallpox no longer exists in human populations and exposing humans to it for testing is too dangerous and morally unacceptable.