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Europe stocks up on smallpox vaccine

Berna Biotech's sales have taken off following smallpox fears swissinfo.ch

European countries are queuing up to buy smallpox vaccines from the Swiss company, Berna Biotech. The deals so far have been worth SFr150 million.

This content was published on November 12, 2001 - 12:50

Following a number of anthrax attacks in the United States, scientists have warned governments to take precautions against a potentially catastrophic outbreak of smallpox, which was officially declared eradicated worldwide in 1979 after mass inoculation.

Several countries have already signed contracts for the vaccine which Berna produces. Negotiations with other countries are still in progress.

Berna, the former Swiss Serum and Vaccine Institute, has not disclosed details of the countries involved, although the Italian health ministry said last week it had bought five million smallpox vaccines for $45 million (SFr74 million).

In a statement, the company said "The current worldwide political situation has prompted a number of European governments to make enquiries about smallpox vaccine.

Lancy-Vaxina Berna

"Berna Biotech has large stocks of Lancy-Vaxina Berna, a proven vaccine in the eradication of smallpox and still highly effective thanks to special storage techniques.

"Several European governments have now ordered this smallpox vaccine from Berna Biotech's available stocks. The company is still in negotiation with other interested parties," the statement said.

In addition to the already-concluded sales worth SFr150 million ($92 million), the company said it could supply further limited quantities of the vaccine from immediately available stocks.

The remaining reserves could bring additional one-time sales of SFr50-70 million.

The disease, which can be caught by breathing in the virus particles, is highly infectious. Smallpox starts with the patient developing flu-like symptoms and then growing weeping pustules, mainly on the face and limbs.

Reintroduction would be "crime"

"Eradicating smallpox was one of the greatest triumphs of the World Health Organisation, so any suggestion that smallpox would be deliberately reintroduced into the world is quite shocking," World Health Organisation spokesman, Iain Simpson, told swissinfo. "It would be an international crime to do this."

"Countries are doing a rational and sensible thing in preparing themselves for the possibility but we very much hope that it won't happen and we think it's probably not as likely as sometimes indicated," he said.

Simpson noted that the vaccine was a useful tool for dealing with a smallpox outbreak but that the WHO did not recommend it for protecting people before an outbreak.

"So long as they're vaccinated within three or four days of the potential exposure, patients can be prevented from developing the worst form of the disease and in many cases prevented from developing the disease at all," he said.

Adverse reactions

"However the downside of the vaccine is that it did have a very high incidence of adverse effects which ranged from serious fevers and headaches all the way through to fatalities in some cases."

The United States and Russia have the only authorised research samples of smallpox but scientists fear countries such as North Korea and Iraq may also have stocks of the virus, which kills 15-20 per cent of the people who get it.

Berna Biotech, an independent biotechnology company in the field of immunisation, is a leading developer and producer of viral and bacterial vaccines.

The company employs about 600 people and had sales in 2000 of about SFr200 million.

In the year 2000, the company generated sales of about SFr200 million and a profit before restructuring costs of SFr4.8 million.

by Vincent Landon

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