WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- The federal government has contracted a Dutch biotechnology company to develop vaccines against Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses, some of the deadliest diseases known and possible bioterrorist agents.
Louise Dolfing, spokeswoman for Crucell, N.V., a company in Leiden, the Netherlands, told United Press International that the vaccines "could be used in the event of biological warfare. That's one of the reasons for developing them."
The deal, announced Wednesday by Crucell, is an extension of a May agreement with National Institutes of Health. Under that contract, Crucell was to develop a vaccine against Ebola, but preliminary tests indicated the vaccine also might be effective against Marburg and Lassa, so the contract was extended to include those two viruses, Dolfing said.
At present there are no vaccines for any of the diseases, which are endemic in Africa. Outbreaks of Marburg and of Ebola -- the deadliest of the three viruses, which kills up to 90 percent of those infected -- pop up from time to time in Africa. Lassa, which is found in the western part of the continent, infects up to 300,000 people each year and causes thousands of deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta classifies the viruses as potential bioweapon agents that are of the highest level of concern. They kill people essentially by causing them to bleed to death. Those infected begin bleeding through all their orifices and often die within a matter of a few days, although initially the viruses cause symptoms that look like a cold or the flu, such as fever, chills and achiness.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., is to provide Crucell with genes from Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses. The company then will insert the genes into an adenovirus, a benign organism commonly used in vaccines. The intention is to use injection of the vaccine into the body to elicit an immune response but without actually causing disease.
"That way you'll be ready to respond to the virus if you're ever exposed to it," Dolfing said. "In the case of biological warfare then there would be a vaccine readily available."
The vaccines also will be distributed to people in Africa, travelers, government officials and military personnel, Crucell said in a written statement.
The Working Group on Civilian Biodefense -- composed of representatives from the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and other bioterrorism experts -- recently issued a report warning that the viruses might be used as biological weapons.
Russia is known to have worked with the viruses in its biological weapons program and produced large quantities of them up until 1992, Gigi Kwik, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies in Baltimore, told UPI.
In addition, 12 countries, including Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea, have or are suspected of having biological weapons programs and any or all of them could have these viruses, Kwik said.
The CIA declined to answer UPI's questions about whether the agency had specific concerns regarding countries that may use these agents as bioweapons.
Although the contract does not set any firm deadlines on when the vaccines should be completed, Dolfing said it is basically "as quickly as we can do it."
The Ebola vaccine, which still is in the test tube research phase, is expected to be ready for testing in monkeys in the first half of 2003. NIH researchers will carry out tests at their facilities, Dolfing said.
The NIH did not return phone calls from UPI seeking comment by press time.