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Smallpox vaccine’s stem cell link prompts pro-life group’s concern

LONDON (BP)–A pro-life group is warning that thousands of Americans might refuse a smallpox vaccine created from a stem cell line derived from an aborted fetus, CNSNews.com reported Nov. 28.

A British company — Acambis Plc based in Cambridge — is one of three companies bidding to produce 250 million doses of smallpox vaccine, enough for every American, after Health Secretary Tommy Thompson announced the vaccine stockpile plan. Also in the running are Merck & Co. of Whitehouse Station, N.J., and the London-based GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

A spokeswoman for the British company told CNSNews.com Nov. 27 that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked the company to keep the details of vaccine production secret.

But a Florida-based group that monitors the use of aborted tissue in vaccines, Children of God for Life, said Acambis plans to use a fetal cell line called MRC-5 to grow smallpox virus for eventual use in a vaccine.

MRC-5 was developed from lung tissue taken from a 14-week fetus aborted from a 27-year-old woman, according to the Coriell Institute for Medical Research at the University of New Jersey medical school, where the cell line is maintained.

CDC documents confirm that production methods for a new smallpox vaccine “include continuous cell lines … of human or animal origin” and that MRC-5 has been used to prepare an experimental vaccine. Smallpox vaccines have traditionally been grown using calfskin or other cattle tissue.

“While many debates have circulated among Catholic theologians and ethicists on whether or not it is morally permissible to use the vaccines, all agree that alternatives must be sought and no further products should be developed,” Children of God for Life said in a statement. “Consider the outcome if the only vaccine we have next year is derived from aborted fetal tissue and hundreds of thousands of Americans refuse it.”

Acambis was awarded a contract last year to produce 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine. After anthrax attacks heightened awareness of bioterrorism, Acambis’ contract was increased to 54 million doses by the U.S. government. The company has formed a partnership with Baxter International Corp. of Deerfield, Ill., to bid on the current, larger contract.

Thompson has said the results of the current round of bidding will be announced in late November.

Smallpox was virtually eliminated by a World Health Organization vaccination program in the 1960s and ’70s. The last known natural case of the disease occurred in 1977, but two known samples of the virus are held in U.S. and Russian laboratories. It is also possible that the virus has been obtained by rogue governments or terrorist groups.

The virulent virus can be transmitted from person to person, and much of the world’s population lacks immunity against smallpox, making the disease a severe threat if virus samples were to fall into terrorist hands.

There are currently no plans for mandatory smallpox vaccinations in the United States, but even a relatively small outbreak of the disease would prompt authorities to vaccinate millions of people. A single smallpox case in Yugoslavia in 1972 required 18 million doses of vaccine to stop the spread of disease.

The CDC estimates that at least 40 million doses of vaccine would be needed to respond effectively to a terrorist attack in the United States. Only 15 million doses are currently stockpiled.
Wendling is the London bureau chief for www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Mike Wendling