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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 entire world.

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 of DNA.

"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.

Reference Source:
December 10, 2009

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