Terror alert as key staff get smallpox jabs

  • Minsters target NHS staff and military personnel for vaccination
  • MINISTERS ruled out mass immunisation against smallpox yesterday but put Britain on heightened alert over bioterrorism by preparing to vaccinate up to 500 key medical and military personnel.

    Teams of NHS and Ministry of Defence experts will be set up at 12 centres across Britain on round-the-clock standby to deal with outbreaks of the deadly disease.

    Ministers said that general inoculation would not be used in response to smallpox attack because it was more efficient to target those who came into contact with infected people.

    However, as the United States prepares to protect 500,000 health workers and up to 500,000 troops, critics last night called for a much broader immunisation programme in Britain.

    About 100 of the joint Army/RAF Nuclear Biological Chemical Regiment and specialists from the Defence Medical Services, as well as 350 NHS staff, will be asked to volunteer for the jab. Tony Blair’s official spokesman called the plan “prudent” and health officials said that the vaccine was too dangerous to offer routinely. One in a million people would die from the injection.

    Downing Street denied that a specific new threat triggered the decision to protect key emergency workers. The Department of Health called smallpox “the most easily transmitted Category A biological agent”. The plan comes a week after ministers announced that they were tendering for millions of extra doses of vaccine — enough to cover every citizen. Only an enormous public outcry in response to widespread outbreaks would trigger mass immunisation, officials admitted.

    “What is clear is that post-September 11 we have to be live to the threat of terrorism,” Mr Blair’s spokesman said. “There is no specific threat here but the Government would be failing in its duty if we did not plan for a scenario everyone hopes will not come to pass.”

    Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, added: “The public should be reassured that we have a very effective plan in place should the worst happen — and we do not expect it to.” Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 but stockpiles of the virus are thought to have been smuggled out of laboratories in the former Soviet Union and may be in the hands of terrorists. It is fatal in one third of cases.

    Security sources said it was “very difficult” to manufacture weaponised smallpox which meant that the risk of such an attack was extremely low. The only known stock of weaponised smallpox was held by the Russians in well-guarded plants in Siberia, with security now improved with US help. Iraq was also feared to have small stocks.

    The sources said that there was no evidence that al-Qaeda was contemplating trying to get hold of smallpox. Other biological materials such as botulism were easier to grow.

    Ian Gibson, the Labour MP and microbiologist who chairs the Commons Science Select Committee, said that greater reassurance would be offered to members of the public if they could choose whether or not they have a smallpox vaccination. “I am sure that if everybody is vaccinated they would feel more reassured and it might even act as a deterrent to terrorists,” he said. “Why don’t we offer it on a voluntary basis to start with and see how may people take it up?” The Conservatives called for more information about the nature of the threat but Liam Fox, the Shadow Health Secretary, backed the decision to avoid mass immunisation.

    Downing Street confirmed that the Government was seeking to buy more supplies of vaccine to cover the entire population. Mr Blair ran into a cronyism row over the initial #32 million contract awarded without normal tendering to Powderject, a firm run by the Labour donor Paul Grayson.

    The Government is stockpiling the Lister strain of vaccine although the United States has decided to buy a different strain. Researchers at the Potomac Institute in the United States have claimed that Britain will know if its vaccine is effective only when it comes to use it for the first time.

    “For the second procurement, we are going down the normal procurement route,” Mr Blair’s spokesman explained. “The last time we needed this, we needed a rapid acquisition on national security grounds.” The MoD said there was no plan to extend inoculations to all members of the Armed Forces although there was a programme to provide anthrax immunisation for all frontline troops because of the perceived risk if Britain goes to war with Iraq.