Who still needs the smallpox vaccine?

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Various countries are covering themselves against the background of possible attacks with biological weapons at the pharmaceutical company Berna Biotech with smallpox vaccine.

This content was published on November 13, 2001 - 9:11 am

The current world situation has led to various European governments asking Berna Biotech for a smallpox vaccine, General Secretary Patrik Richard announced on Monday. Richard did not disclose the names or the number of countries. Switzerland is clarifying whether it will replenish its supplies.

European countries see smallpox vaccine coverage as a purely precautionary measure. The USA had previously signaled to possible terrorists with an open information policy that the country was prepared for an attack.

Berna Biotech has large stocks of the vaccine, Richard said. This has proven itself in the eradication of smallpox. The contracts that have already been concluded will bring the company a one-off additional turnover of CHF 150 million over the next few months.

Berna Biotech could provide additional, albeit limited, quantities of this immediately available vaccine from the existing stocks. These still negotiated quantities could lead to a further one-off turnover of 50 million to 70 million francs.

The Bern-based pharmaceutical company, which previously operated under the name of the Swiss Serum and Vaccination Institute, employs over 600 people and had sales of around CHF 200 million last year.

Enough vaccines for Switzerland

Switzerland has enough vaccine stocks to vaccinate the population if necessary, as Kathrin Bernard, responsible for biosafety at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), said. It is currently being clarified whether these vaccine stocks still need to be replenished. The risk of a terrorist attack with smallpox viruses is assessed as too low to carry out a preventive vaccination campaign.

At the end of October, the WHO also advised against mass vaccination against smallpox because of possible side effects, but recommended that governments increase their vaccine stocks. In 1980, after a global vaccination campaign, the WHO announced the eradication of smallpox and called on all countries to stop vaccinating against smallpox and to stop vaccine production.

Vaccinia virus vaccine strains were used to produce the substance, Bernard said. These are related to the variola pox virus. Research with vaccinia is still being carried out in Switzerland. There are still two high-security laboratories around the world that work with smallpox viruses, namely in Novosibirsk, Russia, and near Atlanta in the US state of Georgia. They are under the supervision of the WHO.

According to Hansruedi Indermühle from the AC-Labor Spiez, smallpox, unlike anthrax, is highly contagious. In theory, a smallpox virus terrorist attack could be carried out through a suicide attack. A person would become infected willingly and then spread the virus to other people through direct or indirect contact. According to the BAG, around 40 percent of severe smallpox cases are fatal.

swissinfo and agencies

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