Army Plague Vaccine Looks Promising 

(Be sure to check out the highlighted links)

A plague vaccine developed by the U.S. Army was shown to be effective in a new experiment attempting to incorporate “real world” conditions, the Billings Gazette reported today (see GSN, Feb. 19).

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., replicated a natural infection process by transmitting the disease from fleas to mice. Scientists normally test vaccines by directly injecting an inoculated subject with the pathogen, but natural transmission of plague is not so straightforward, said Joseph Hinnebusch, the lead researcher of the experiment (Jennifer McKee, Billings Gazette, March 25).

The new vaccine was invented at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., and proved 100-percent effective in the Rocky Mountain study, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The new research showed that the vaccine worked “in a real-world context,” Hinnebusch said in an NIH press release.

He said an older vaccine, available until the mid-1990s, is no longer manufactured due to multiple side effects and its short-term effectiveness. He said development of an effective plague vaccine is a high priority.

“Two factors — the threat of antibiotic-resistant plague and the possible use of plague by bioterrorists — have the public health system scrambling to come up with an effective vaccine and alternative treatments,” Hinnebusch said. “Plague has been used as a bioweapon before and it could be again,” he added (National Institutes of Health Release, March 24).

The use of plague as a weapon has a long history, beginning with the Tartars’ siege of the Ukrainian port city of Kaffa in 1346, when the invaders hurled their plague-infested dead over the city walls, forcing it to surrender. In 1422 the Lithuanian Prince Coribut flung plague-stricken bodies plus 2,000 cartloads of excrement into enemy troops at the Battle of Carolstein. In 1710, Russian troops flung the corpses of plague victims over the city walls of Reval during Russia’s war with Sweden. More recently, Japan used plague bacteria, including biological bombs, on China during World War II (, Oct. 8, 2001).