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Report outlines steps needed to lessen smallpox threat

The best bet for averting the deadly spread of smallpox following release of the virus by terrorists may rest with the establishment of a major collaborative research effort to develop new antiviral drugs that would involve the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, universities and government agencies, according to a new report from the National Academies.

The report delivers the recommendations of a distinguished panel of researchers who participated in a two-day workshop at the National Academies to promote the application of the latest biological information, technology and experience to the study of smallpox. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Stephen C. Harrison of Harvard Medical School is the lead author of the report, which was published online July 12, 2004, in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Harrison, two factors loomed large as the scientists considered the dangers of smallpox. First, there is essentially no information about whether stocks of the variola virus, which causes smallpox, exist outside the two known repositories in the United States and Russia. Second, the impact of intentional release of the virus would "probably provoke a global health crisis." The report states that "the lethality of the disease (up to 40 percent) and its ease of transmissibility place variola virus at the top of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's] list of high threat (category A) agents."

Given the pressing need for novel drugs to prevent the spread of smallpox if it were to be used as a bioterror agent, Harrison said that the group's top recommendation was the immediate engagement of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the project. With the estimated price tag for developing two or three antiviral drugs at $1.5-$2.5 billion, it is likely that the government is going to have to consider
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
12-Jul-2004


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