Do we really need a $443 million smallpox drug?

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?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com