U.K. smallpox rethink prompts stockpiling criticisms

Stockpiling vaccines for rare but potentially cataclysmic events is always likely to draw criticism from someone. Spend lots on vaccines for an attack that never happens, and critics will point to wasted cash. Fail to prepare for an incident that occurs, and the outcome will be much worse.

Last week the U.S. put itself firmly in the "better safe than sorry" camp by adding antivirals from Siga Technologies to its already considerable vaccine stocks. But other countries view the risks of smallpox differently. In the United Kingdom, the government has quietly downgraded the threat assessment for smallpox. The decision comes a decade after the previous administration began spending $120 million on smallpox vaccines in preparation for a possible terrorist attack.

Documents seen by the Independent on Sunday show that the government views preparations for a smallpox attack as being too expensive, unwieldy and disproportionate to the risk. Now, plans to immunize frontline workers are being scaled down, and other preparations are being reviewed in light of feedback from intelligence analysts and germ-warfare advisers. The rethink has dragged up a decade-old controversy about the stockpiling. Back then a political row broke out after a firm owned by a donor to the Labour Party, which was in power then, won $50 million of the work.

For some though, who got the money is irrelevant, it was a waste wherever it was spent. "The downgrade is of a threat that should never have had an upgrade. Buying millions of doses of vaccine was a waste of money," Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, told the Independent. It seems the government also began having doubts fairly early in the process. A report from 2006--when the party that green-lit the plan was still in power--raised concerns about value for money and the need to revaccinate.

- here's the Independent article