Safer smallpox vaccine in the works at the University of Alberta

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 and Ryan Noyce hope the vaccine has fewer side effects than the one that currently exists

The current vaccine, pictured here, can cause side effects that Ryan Noyce and David Evans are trying to eliminate.

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.

Why smallpox?

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.

Evans described smallpox as "an ugly-looking disease" that causes influenza-like symptoms and turns into lesions on the skin that can last for up to four weeks.
This actor-patient was made up to look like he has smallpox. The disease causes lesions on the skin. (Nati Harnik/The Associated Press)
"It was a long process," he said. "They [the World Health Organization] sent teams of people around, looking to where they could find the occasional case.

"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.

Eradication debate

The United Nations health agency and many UN-member countries have been pushing for complete eradication of the virus, saying the likelihood of accidental release or bioterrorism is increased without its eradication.
David Evans and Ryan Noyce said they will partner with a Canadian company to do safe and secure vaccine testing with the virus. (CBC)

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."