Online Extra: Peters on vaccine development and what scares him the most.
TR: In terms of developing vaccines against biowarfare agents in general, isn’t vaccine development even more problematic than drug development?Peters: We are not undertaking the production of new vaccines because it is so complicated, so expensive, and so tied to liability issues. We need exemptions from liability for unpredictable results that are a natural possibility. It’s possible to have a vaccine perfectly manufactured to every standard that anyone would imagine, and you can give it to somebody and they can still get hurt. We should hold vaccine makers safe from unanticipated consequences, while still helping any injured people.
TR: What about that experiment in Australia, where a gene was inserted into mousepox virus and made the virus lethal even to the vaccine-resistant mice. Could such a trick have the same effect with smallpox and render human vaccines useless?
Peters: That’s entirely speculation. All the pox viruses have a complicated set of regulatory molecules that can turn down host immune responses and get around host immune responses. And just because one gene in one particular system in mice will tip the balance, doesn’t mean that it will or won’t tip the balance with human smallpox and vaccine. I think there’s not enough data and frankly, I hope I never see the data.
TR: Now, you’ve been all over the world. What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen and what lesson might you draw from it?
Peters: The scaredest I’ve been-when you get that lump in your stomach and you think, “Oh, my God,” was when we started looking at the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome cases in the Southwestern U.S. Why was it scary? Well, here was a disease that we’d sat down and discussed as a group of experienced, infectious diseases virologists-and nobody knew what it was. I mean, it was a new disease, and it wasn’t way the hell and gone somewhere, it was right in the middle of the U.S, and that was really scary. I think when things start happening at home, that’s when you start puckering up. Inhalation anthrax is just as bad -invisible and lethal. I mean, you just think about it-it’s not supposed to happen here in River City.