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Smallpox Vaccine May Protect Against HIV Infection, Small Study Shows

September 12, 2003

Smallpox vaccinations might also offer protection against HIV infection, according to the results of a small study conducted by George Mason University's National Center for Biodefense researchers, the AP/Newport News Daily Press reports. Researchers based their study on the theory that the rapid spread of HIV in central Africa in the 1980s coincided with the widespread discontinuance of smallpox vaccinations when smallpox was believed to be eliminated. National Center for Biodefense Director Ken Alibek and GMU researcher Raymond Weinstein studied blood samples from 10 people who received the smallpox vaccination and 10 who did not. HIV was added to each of the blood samples (Barakat, AP/Newport News Daily Press, 9/11). According to the researchers, HIV either did not grow or grew at "substantially reduced levels" in the cells of blood samples taken from individuals who had received the smallpox vaccination, according to a Center for Biodefense release (National Center for Biodefense release, 9/11). Researchers observed an average four-fold decrease in infectivity in the blood cells of the vaccinated individuals, compared with the cells from people who had not been vaccinated, according to Jerry Coughter, director of life science management at GMU, Reuters reports (Fox, Reuters, 9/11). Despite the relatively small number of subjects involved, researchers found a statistically significant difference in resistance to HIV infection between the blood cells from the vaccinated subjects and the blood cells from the unvaccinated subjects (National Center for Biodefense release, 9/11).

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Alibek said, "Our outcomes are very encouraging. Additional studies that may lead us to more definitive conclusions already are under way" (Reuters, 9/11). Wayne Koff, senior vice president for research and development at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, said that he was concerned about "drawing too many conclusions" from the small study, according to the AP/Daily Press. He added, "It's preliminary. It's intriguing. But it reminds me of a lot of the data sets we get that are preliminary and intriguing" but do not necessarily turn out to be successful. Koff also said that he was "skeptic[al]" of the connection between the decline in smallpox vaccinations and the spread of HIV in Africa, according to the AP/Daily Press. Alibek said that although the research has yet to prove if the smallpox vaccine offers an HIV-specific antibody response, that could be "irrelevant," adding, "For a person who would be protected, it would not matter if it is specific to HIV" as long as the vaccine offers protection, the AP/Daily Press reports (AP/Newport News Daily Press, 9/11).The researchers are currently participating in discussions with Acambis, which manufactures vaccines for smallpox and other diseases, to conduct further testing, Reuters reports (Reuters, 9/11).

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