Developing Drugs to Treat Smallpox, the Weapon of Choice for Bioterrorists

Bioterror Busters Turn to N.Y. Team to Fight Smallpox
by Niles Lathem

Source: The New York Post

December 31,2000

DEBUGGING: Dr. Vincent Fischetti of Rockefeller University leads the search for a smallpox cure.
- NYP: Michael Norcia

The Pentagon has commissioned a group of New York scientists to develop drugs to treat smallpox in the wake of reports that the deadly virus could emerge as the weapon of choice for bioterrorists. A team of scientists at Rockefeller University - in conjunction with SIGA Technologies Inc., a Manhattan-based biotechnology firm - is working on a new class of drugs to counter the possible devastating spread of smallpox, The Post has learned.

Scientists and bio-warfare experts warn that the United States is totally unprepared for a smallpox attack because the disease - which spreads through the air with a 30 percent mortality rate - was believed to have been eradicated in 1980 and there are few stockpiles of vaccines left and no medicine to treat the virus.

Dr. Vincent Fischetti, head of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology at Rockefeller University and one of two scientists heading the search for a smallpox cure, says the disease is an especially dangerous weapon since itís "simple to grow" and can spread rapidly.

"If you had a smallpox virus attached to the bomb that went off at the [1996] Olympics in Atlanta, you would have had a global catastrophe because all those people from all over the world who were there would have gone home and spread the disease very rapidly," he said.

In recent Congressional testimony, top Pentagon officials said intelligence reports indicate that 10 countries - including Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria - have been developing biological weapons to spread diseases like anthrax, the plague and smallpox.

Dr. Donald Henderson, director for the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University, considers smallpox "the most serious bioterrorist threat to the civilian population."

In a recent report he noted that "its destructive potential today is far greater than at any time in history.

"A spreading, highly lethal epidemic in an essentially unprotected population, with limited supplies of vaccine, no therapeutic drugs and with shortages of beds suitable for patient isolation, is an ominous specter," he said.

Other recent studies, including one by the Washington-based Henry Stimson Center, indicate that some scientists believe the threat is being exaggerated.

They point out that even if terrorists do possess germ-warfare agents, turning them into weapons is an extremely complex undertaking.

But the U.S. government is taking the threat very seriously - investing more than $1 million to prevent a smallpox attack, which the Russians have conceded they were aiming for years ago.

The Centers for Disease Control this year let out contracts to pharmaceutical firms to mass-produce 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine.

Fischettiís group has received a total of $1.4 million in grants from the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services to develop drugs to treat the virus.

In conjunction with a SIGA team at Oregon State University headed by Dr. Dennis Hruby, Fischetti said he is working on the development of anti-viral compounds similar to the combination of drugs that slows down the AIDS virus.

Fischetti said he does not know how soon his work will produce results.

"The technology is there," he said hopefully.

A separate project to develop a decontaminant spray that sends healing agents through the bodyís mucus system is also being developed by the two SIGA teams.

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