Fort Detrick Researchers Make Pneumonic
Plague Vaccine with Britain, Canada
A University of Illinois international law professor, Francis
Boyle had stated that a military laboratory expansion at Fort
Detrick would plan a weaponized program that would include activities
such acquiring, growing, modifying, storing, packaging and
dispersing classical, emerging and genetically engineered pathogens.
Fort Detrick is a research laboratory which manufactures vaccines.
It is located quite close to Washington, in Maryland, and it is
attached to the National Cancer Institute at Bethesda, a suburb
of the capital.
Boyle charged that those activities, as well as planned study
of the properties of pathogens when weaponized, are unmistakable
hallmarks of an offensive weapons program.
Boyle made his comments to Fort Detrick as part of its environmental
impact assessment of the new facility. Boyle pointed out in his
letter that he authored the 1989 U.S. law enacted by Congress
that criminalized BWC violations.
The Fort Detrick expansion is but one phase of a multi-billion
biotech buildup going forward in 11 other agencies since 2001.
A Captain and biologist of the US Navy at Fort Detrick, Neil
Levitt, had previously reported the disappearance of 2.35 liters
of an experimental vaccine. A dose sufficient to contaminate the
Now, a group of Fort Detrick researchers recently found out their
15-plus years of work to combat the plague would be the focus
of a multinational effort to mass produce a vaccine.
In 1993, Lt. Col. David Heath, a staff scientist for the Military
Infectious Disease Research Program at Fort Detrick, began researching
a way of combining the existing vaccine for the bubonic plague
-- an infection in the lymph nodes -- with a new kind of protection
from the pneumonic plague, which attacks the lungs.
A group of British scientists were racing with the Fort Detrick
group to produce a vaccine for the pneumonic plague, which many
scientists think could be used in a bioterrorism attack.
While the British had created two separate proteins to put in
their vaccine, one for each type of plague infection, Heath had
the idea to link the two proteins together in a single strand
"It's all just one big gene now, where it used to be two,"
which makes the vaccine easier and cheaper to manufacture, said
Heath, who at the time worked for the U.S. Army Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases.
In 2000, the United States began working with Britain and Canada
to share information about the plague vaccine. In 2005, the three
countries agreed to pool their resources to create a vaccine to
be mass-produced, though they were still considering working with
the British formula. In the latest agreement, the three countries
agreed to use USAMRIID's fusion protein as the basis of the vaccine.
"We've been collaborating at the same time we've been competing,
so for many years we've shared information, we've had joint meetings,
because we all are after the same goal," said Patricia Worsham,
USAMRIID's chief of bacteriology.
Under the agreement, Britain and Canada will contribute money
and technical expertise to the United States, which will act as
lead developer, said Julius Evans, spokesman for the Joint Program
Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense. The end
product will be a set of instructions for making and administering
the vaccines, which each country will be able to license through
its own regulatory agency.
The U.S. and Canada agreed in 2002 to work together on a smallpox
vaccine, he said, and other possible partnerships are being discussed.
The Army hopes to have the vaccine approved by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration by 2015. Already completed early human
clinical trials indicate the vaccine is safe and does provide
immunity to the plague bacteria, called Yersinia pestis.
Given the availability of Y pestis around the world, capacity
for its mass production and aerosol dissemination, difficulty
in preventing such activities, high fatality rate of pneumonic
plague, and potential for secondary spread of cases during an
epidemic, the potential use of plague
as a biological weapon is of great concern.
Aside from finding an appropriate human dosage, researchers still
need to carry out more tests to prove recipients develop and maintain
immunity to the plague. Worsham said they hope to test the vaccine
against a few more rare strands of the bacteria. So far, though,
the vaccine is safe and effective, she said.
Worsham wasn't sure what the three countries planned to do with
the vaccine once finalized. She said the U.S. Army will decide
which of its employees will need vaccination -- it will almost
certainly include all USAMRIID employees who study the plague.
The Department of Health and Human Services will be in charge
of vaccinating any civilians who might need the shot.
Bubonic plague is best known for causing the Black Death outbreak
that killed more than 25 million people in the 14th century, or
about a third of Europe's population.
Though better sanitation has almost eradicated the disease in
the U.S., there are still about 10 cases in humans each year,
typically west of the Rocky Mountains, Heath said. Feral cats
contract the plague fairly regularly, spread through fleas that
have bitten infected rodents, and in some cases domestic cats
have transmitted the disease to their owners, Heath said.