Safer smallpox vaccine in the works at the University of Alberta
David Evans and Ryan Noyce hope the vaccine has fewer side effects than the one that currently exists
Researchers at the University of Alberta are working on a vaccine for a virus that killed a third of the people it infected — even though the virus was virtually eradicated 40 years ago.
David Evans, an immunology professor at the U of A, along with his research associate Ryan Noyce, are hoping their smallpox vaccine will have fewer side effects than the current vaccine.
"The reality is, the current smallpox vaccine does have some cardio toxicity effects in patients," Noyce told CBC's Radio Active Tuesday. "We are hoping to license this as a safer smallpox vaccine."
The researchers are developing the vaccine using horsepox, a variation on the virus. The vaccine is currently in the testing phase.
The smallpox disease was eradicated from all parts of the world decades ago, but the virus still exists in secured laboratories.
The researchers said they field a lot of questions about why they are working on a vaccine for a disease that doesn't exist anymore.
Noyce said some people are still being vaccinated today. "In America, they vaccinate their troops because there is a possibility that it could come back," he said.
"They offered prizes if you could find a case of smallpox."
Evans said the teams would vaccinate anyone who could have come in contact with any case they found.
The last known case of smallpox was in 1978, when a photographer in Britain who worked above a lab that handled smallpox was exposed through the ventilation system.
Today, the virus is only known to be in two places: secure laboratories in both Atlanta and Russia.
Some scientists maintain that having secured vials of the virus could provide valuable information, should there be another outbreak in the future.
Evans said he understands the concern from officials who want to completely eliminate the virus, but he said those stocks of the virus are kept safe. "The concern is whether there are some secret stocks," he said.
He said the virus stocks are used to compare antibodies in vaccines to see if they block growth and culture in the virus. This is as far as Evans can go with testing his vaccine in humans because the disease doesn't currently exist in humans.
The research group is planning on partnering with a firm in Canada where they will grow the virus in a controlled state to test the vaccine.
If successful, this vaccine could replace the current stockpiles. While the researchers hope the vaccine is successful, they also hope that they don't have to use it.
"If you're lucky," Evans said, "in 50 years, you throw it all away and you make some more."