Top Army Researcher Urges U.S. Officials to Preserve Smallpox Virus for ‘AIDS-Era’ Antiviral Drug Tests
Although health officials plan to destroy the last stocks of smallpox virus next year, a top U.S. Army researcher has urged the United States to preserve the supply to allow scientists to test "AIDS-era" antiviral drugs against the virus, the Washington Post Magazine reports. Peter Jahrling, chief scientific adviser at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said that the drugs may offer "potential to treat victims in the event of an outbreak" of smallpox. Jahrling and a team of U.S. Army scientists have tested a number of antiviral drugs since 1995 and have found "a handful" that can "kill the smallpox virus effectively" in the laboratory. According to Jahrling, the emergence of AIDS represents the "most important reason to search for antiviral drugs" to fight a smallpox epidemic. Individuals with AIDS have weakened immune systems and would "almost certainly resist" smallpox vaccination, as the weakened live virus vaccine could kill them. In addition, AIDS patients "will be acutely vulnerable" to the smallpox virus, which reproduces "explosively" in those with compromised immune systems, and would be "more infectious than the average" smallpox patient. They would send "millions upon millions of viral particles" into the air with each breath, according to Jahrling. "With a family living in a thatched hut in Africa exposed to one guy shedding smallpox virus, it may be that you can successfully intervene with vaccine four days later," he said, adding, "But that may not be true in an air-conditioned condo with recirculating air where the exposed person also has HIV and is putting out a hundred times as much virus" (Brownlee, Washington Post Magazine, 10/28).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.