Pentagon to participate in international plague vaccine effort

United States will work with Canada and United Kingdom on project.

The Defense Department has unveiled an international effort to develop a vaccine that would protect against the plague.

Defense officials announced the project Friday and said Pentagon scientists will collaborate with military biologists from Canada, Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Federal health officials classify plague among the deadliest biological pathogens, along with smallpox, botulism, tularemia, hemorrhagic fever and anthrax.

"Under this agreement, the three nations will work together to develop and produce a plague vaccine that will ultimately be licensed for human use," the Pentagon announcement said.

The United States and the United Kingdom have operated separate plague vaccine development programs for more than five years. In 2000, both countries and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding to share vaccine development information.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a terrorist attack with plague in an aerosol gas could cause an outbreak of the pneumonic form of the disease, which affects the lungs and can be transmitted by the breath of infected victims. Plague infections can be fatal if victims are not treated promptly.

A spokesman from the Pentagon's Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense said the arrangement would help all the participating nations.

"This international collaboration would be beneficial to the DoD, UK and Canada as it would result in a vaccine licensed in all three countries," the spokesman said. "As all three participating countries would support the effort, DoD would realize some cost savings."

Last year, Congress passed Project Bioshield, with $6 billion in federal funding designed to spur private companies to develop vaccines and treatments for dangerous biological weapons. Experts and former government officials have said, however, that the program is falling short of its goals.

Last year, Jerome Hauer, former HHS acting assistant secretary for the office of public health emergency preparedness, said that Project Bioshield was designed to "stimulate the industry.... But it appears to have had just the opposite effect." Officials have proposed a Project Bioshield II program to generate more industry initiatives, but most biological defense research is still in the hands of the federal government.

Defense officials plan to test the two plague vaccines currently in development and select one to receive additional attention and resources. The vaccine that is being researched in the United States was developed by the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Researchers began testing the vaccine early this year at the University of Kentucky.

The British plague vaccine candidate is expected to begin testing in the United States in late 2005 under guidelines set out by the Food and Drug Administration. After results are in from those tests, officials will determine which vaccine to continue developing. The Defense spokesman said there are no concerns about meshing the two tracks of scientific research because the technical collaboration is scheduled to begin after one vaccine is chosen.