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Lab Almost Destroyed Smallpox Vaccine

March 29, 2002

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ For three decades, 120 liters of smallpox vaccine sat in a walk-in freezer at a remote mountainside lab in the Poconos, stored at precisely minus-20 degrees Celsius, even though company officials thought the drugs were worthless.

``We had actually been developing protocols with the (Centers for Disease Control) to destroy it,″ said Aventis Pasteur spokeswoman Beth Waters.

Then a series of anthrax-tainted letters killed five people in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, reviving fears that smallpox, eradicated worldwide by 1980, might return as a biological weapon.

In October, the French-owned company’s nearly forgotten stockpile _ believed to be enough to vaccinate about 85 million people _ was transferred from its campus in Swiftwater, Pa., to a secret location.

``All I can say is that it is not in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, anymore,″ Waters said. ``There was substantial security at our site, but not like where it is now.″

Aventis on Friday announced it would donate the supply to the federal government after preliminary tests revealed the vaccines are probably still effective, even after 30 years in cold storage.

The drugs, worth about $150 million, will vastly expand the nation’s stockpile of the vaccine, which had been estimated at about 15.4 million doses but could be diluted to make more than 150 million inoculations.

The removal of the drug from the Swiftwater campus, about 80 miles north of Philadelphia, marks the first time in its 105-year history that it hasn’t had a reserve of smallpox vaccine.

New York bacteriologist Dr. Richard Slee founded the Pocono Biological Laboratories in 1897 to research smallpox inoculations. He had fallen in love with the region while recuperating from cholera at the Swiftwater Inn, still located across the street. He also fell for the innkeeper’s daughter and had married her.

The lab’s first smallpox vaccine _ the first in the U.S. to mix the disinfectant glycerin with an inactive strain of the smallpox virus _ was sold in ads as ``Dr. Slee’s Glycerinated Vaccine Virus,″ with a promise that it was ``always effective.″

Slee’s drug was a vast improvement over previous smallpox inoculations and set the groundwork for his lab’s establishment as one of the nation’s largest producers of the vaccine.

The lab today is a combination of modern buildings and old stone dormitories with a winding trout brook. It stopped making smallpox in 1972, but never depleted its supply.

The last bottles were rendered to relic status in 1980, when smallpox was believed to survive only in a few biological weapons caches in the United States and Soviet Union.

A series of international owners of the laboratory, including Connaught Laboratories Ltd., of Toronto, Institut Merieux S.A., Rhone-Poulenc S.A. and finally Aventis Pasteur, made other vaccines at the lab, now the largest employer in Monroe County.

The remaining stash of smallpox vaccine is about 31 gallons in a concentrated form, Waters said. It is stored in commercial freezers at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit with emergency generators and alarms that would trip if the temperature began to drop.

Believing the need for a smallpox vaccine to be obsolete, lab workers began talks with the CDC in 1999 on precisely how to destroy the drugs, a long process for any sort of vaccine.

They were still working out the protocols last fall when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Suddenly, the secret discussions on the drugs changed to whether the vaccines could still be used as a defense against a biological terrorism.

``It’s quite amazing, and quite appropriate, really, that this facility should turn out to be a source of smallpox vaccine now, when it played so vital a role in its development early on,″ said author Jeff Widmer, who chronicled the lab’s history in his 1997 book, ``The Spirit of Swiftwater.″


On the Net:

World Health Organization page on smallpox: http://www.who.int/emc/diseases/smallpox/

Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/

Aventis Pasteur: http://www.aventispasteur.com/

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