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Researchers Develop Potent Smallpox Remedies - 2002-03-20

U.S. scientists have taken a huge step in making smallpox less of a terrorist threat to America. Researchers have developed a smallpox treatment that is 100 times more potent than existing remedies.

Karl Hostetler, who is a lead researcher in developing the new oral drug, says the pill kills the smallpox virus in lab-grown human cells and in mice inflicted with another form of pox disease.

"Before this, there was no highly potent oral drug. Five relatively small oral doses given once daily for five days completely prevents illness and death from pox virus infection," Mr. Hostetler says.

The drug, HDP-cidofovir, is the pill form of its parent drug that is taken through the veins. Dr. Hostetler says the pill is more powerful because cells absorb it more quickly. And in the event of a smallpox outbreak, it would be much easier to give to patients.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, says having this oral drug is an important defense because smallpox disfigures its victims.

"The idea of being able to treat someone for a disease that would otherwise be 30 percent fatal, not to mention the disfiguring aspect of the scars, would be an important advance," Dr. Fauci says.

Smallpox is a highly infectious virus that causes multiple blisters to form on the skin and can eventually lead to death in about a month's time if not treated.

Although the world eradicated smallpox in 1977, the U.S. government fears terrorists stashed away vials of the virus for future biological warfare. Millions of Americans under the age of 25 have never been vaccinated.

Although the government is also increasing the stock of the vaccine, some people have terrible reactions to it, and a second line of defense is needed.

Doctor Hostetler says although the research is exciting, there is still a lot of work to do.

"Other models of pox virus infection need to be tested, the drug's safety needs to be established before we can begin to consider even giving it to normal human volunteers," Doctor Hostetler says.

Anthony Fauci says it could be more than a year before the drug is approved for use. But it is one more weapon scientists and the government will have to fight a smallpox terrorist attack.