£80m 'wasted' on smallpox terror threat

Leading scientist says fear that terrorists might attack Britain with the virus was 'far-fetched'

One of the country's foremost scientists has claimed Britain "wasted" almost £80m buying smallpox vaccine, after it emerged that the Government has quietly downgraded the threat of a terrorist attack using the virus.

Hugh Pennington, a bacteriologist, said he had always believed the idea of terrorists using smallpox was "far-fetched" because the virus spreads too slowly and is almost impossible to obtain.

Tony Blair ordered the purchase of millions of doses of the smallpox vaccine to protect the British puplic 11 years ago amid the post 9/11 security clampdown in the West.

But internal papers obtained by The Independent on Sunday show that ministers have now downgraded their assessment of the threat, and ruled that those preparations were too expensive, "unwieldy" and not "proportionate".

The Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health are both reviewing plans for dealing with a deliberate release of smallpox into the population, in line with a high-level judgement from intelligence analysts and germ-warfare advisers. Both departments have also decided to scale down a scheme to immunise hundreds of frontline workers, to enable them to treat those infected by a germ-warfare attack.

The decision emerged a decade after the then Labour government launched its "smallpox plan" post 9/11. The frantic escalation in Britain's defences against a germ-warfare attack came amid security fears and warnings that extremists could use biological agents such as smallpox and anthrax, as well as explosives.

But Professor Pennington said yesterday: "The downgrade is of a threat that should never have had an upgrade. Buying millions of doses of vaccine was a waste of money."

The decision by the Labour government to spend £79m on smallpox vaccine sparked an enormous political row at the time, as £32m of it went to a company owned by the Labour donor Paul Drayson. He later became a Labour peer and then a minister. The then health minister stated that Lord Drayson's company, Powderject, was awarded the contract as it was "the only company that was able to supply the vaccine that we required as soon as possible".

By 2005, the Department of Health had completed vaccinating a cohort of 516 volunteers, including 147 doctors, 164 nurses and 100 ambulance staff, "to deal with any initial suspected or confirmed case of smallpox".

But internal documents obtained by The IoS reveal that officials raised concerns over the "first responders" programme in 2006, four years after the smallpox plan was published.

A report on the scheme in May 2006 warned: "The current arrangement is proving operationally difficult to maintain, will require revaccination of significant numbers this year and presents a range of administrative, funding and value-for-money issues that also require resolution."

But, in a clear indication of the potential for controversy, officials made clear that they would not make an announcement about any change, warning that "smallpox remains a sensitive subject, and any change may attract media interest".

An updated report, in October 2011, stated: "Many of those in the cohort have not been revaccinated, as required to maintain immunity, or have moved on. A decision is needed ... to maintain such a vaccinated cohort, now the threat of smallpox has been downgraded."

Ministers eventually requested advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) late last year, citing the risks from the vaccine itself.

Minutes from the JCVI's confidential deliberations record that "JCVI was now asked to consider options for Smarts [Smallpox Management and Response Teams]... in light of the risks associated with smallpox vaccination and the changed current and future risk of an... outbreak.

"While the risk of smallpox outbreak may have reduced, there may still be a need for Smarts. However... a more appropriate and proportionate option would be to convene Smarts consisting of a registered cohort of unvaccinated or previously vaccinated healthcare workers who are willing to be (re-)vaccinated quickly in the event of an emergency."

Suggested Topics
Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup