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Critics question biodefense spending

Nov. 12, 2011 at 10:15 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Critics are questioning efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to secure a $433 million experimental smallpox drug with uncertain efficacy.

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday senior administration officials acted to make sure the federal contract went to Siga Technologies Inc., a New York pharmaceutical firm whose controlling shareholder is Democratic Party backer Ronald Perelman. Under the contract approved in May, Siga is to deliver 1.7 million doses of the drug for the national biodefense stockpile, the Times said. The price is about $255 per dose.

Smallpox was wiped out worldwide back in 1978, with the only known remnants of the virus kept by the U.S. government and Russian scientists. The U.S. government already has about $1 billion worth off smallpox vaccine it could use to vaccinate all Americans, at a cost of about $3 per dose.

Siga's anti-smallpox pill, called ST-246, would be used to treat anyone diagnosed with the disease too late for the vaccine to help. But the Times said it's never been tested for effectiveness and the chances of it ever being needed appears remote.

"We've got a vaccine that I hope we never have to use -- how much more do we need?" said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, an epidemiologist who led the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication efforts and helped organize U.S. biodefense efforts under President George W. Bush. "The bottom line is, we've got a limited amount of money."

Dr. Thomas Mack, an epidemiologist at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, who worked to contain smallpox outbreaks in Pakistan, calls the plan to stockpile Siga's drug "a waste of time and a waste of money."

Still, Dr. Nicole Lurie, who heads biodefense planning at Health and Human Services, said a 2004 study found there was a "material threat" smallpox could be used as a biological weapon.

"I don't put probabilities around anything in terms of imminent or not," Lurie said. "Because what I can tell you is, in the two-plus years I've been in this job, it's the unexpected that always happens."

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