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Do we really need a $443 million smallpox drug?

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Siga Technologies was awarded a U.S. government contract worth $433 million to develop an experimental drug for smallpox. The problem: it was eradicated in 1978.

An alarming report in the Los Angeles Times this month notes that New York-based pharmaceutical company Siga Technologies was awarded a U.S. government contract worth $433 million to develop an experimental smallpox drug.

The problem: smallpox was eradicated across the globe by 1978. It exists "only in the locked freezers of a Russian scientific institute and the U.S. government," David Willman writes.

The contract calls for the company to deliver 1.7 million doses of the drug -- at $225 per dose -- for the United States' biodefense stockpile. (Theoretically, a terrorist could cause harm with smallpox; on the other hand, no credible evidence exists that anyone has the stuff.)

Currently, the U.S. government has more than $1 billion worth of smallpox vaccine on hand -- at $3 per dose -- in case the threat ever goes viral again. (Pun very much intended.) Williams' report suggests that the contract was more the product of political glad-handing than actual problem-solving.

There is a difference between the treatments. The government's existing vaccine can prevent death in those who receive it within four days of infection; Siga's antiviral ST-246 pill treats those who miss that four-day window.

One hiccup: the drug can't be tested in humans because it would be unethical to infect someone with the pathogen for the sake of scientific research.

Do we really need a new drug for smallpox? Is research without an immediate application worth pursuing?

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure