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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
Inquiry calls over vaccine contract
Smallpox is the most devastating infectious disease
The Conservative Party is calling for an independent inquiry after a 32m contract for smallpox vaccines was awarded to a company whose owner donated money to the Labour Party.

The Department of Health (DoH) has bought a stockpile of the vaccine to protect half the UK population against a smallpox attack by terrorists, although there is no known threat.

Tim Collins
Tim Collins wants decision investigated

The deal is with British company PowderJect Pharmaceuticals, whose owner Paul Drayson donated 50,000 to Labour in July 2001, according to the Electoral Commission website.

The government said the contract award, confirmed on Friday, was not linked to the gift.

But Tim Collins MP, Conservative vice-chairman, demanded an inquiry and the establishment of a cross-party group to supervise all party donations.

"This is bound to happen until we have a proper culture of openness and a proper mechanism where we don't have to take ministers' words for it," he said.

Referring to previous 'cash-for-favours' claims, Mr Collins suggested the smallpox contract could be "another coincidence in a long chain of coincidences after Mittal, Enron and Formula One".

Decision defended

The government has strongly denied any impropriety in the award of the contract, which has infuriated rival drug producers who say they were not given a chance to bid.

Smallpox facts
Can transmit through air
Kills about 30% of those infected
No cure
First symptoms can be mistaken for flu
Officially eradicated in 1980 after global vaccination
First used as weapon by British against Native Americans in 18th century

Dr John Brown is chief executive of Acambis Plc, one of several companies initially approached by the UK Government and currently manufacturing 200m doses of a smallpox vaccine for the US.

He said: "It's unlikely that anyone would be able to get a fully clinically-tested vaccine before us."

He insisted he had not been officially told Acambis had missed out on the contract.

But Health Minister John Hutton said: "The reason why PowderJect was given the contract, as we've tried to make clear, was for one reason and one reason alone.

"They were the only company which could provide the type of vaccine we wanted as quickly as possible.

"Dr Brown's company make a different strain of the vaccine and we decided, having looked at the issues very carefully, not to procure the particular strain that his company manufacturers."

Mr Hutton said advice was sought from the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, who confirmed the contract should be placed with PowderJect.

And he added that the industry could not have been told in advance of the award because of commercial confidentiality.

Culture of secrecy

But Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker said: "We've a situation where someone who has given money to the Labour party has won a contract in less than open circumstances.

"Now part of that is the fact that the British Government, and successive governments, have an endemic secrecy at its heart.

"We are not treated like adults in this country like in the US."

A DoH spokesman has said the smallpox vaccine was being bought "as part of the government's continuing vigilance against international terrorism", although there was no "credible threat".

The BBC's Sarah Nelson
"Paul Drayson's links to the government have put ministers on the defensive"
Health Minister John Hutton
"PowderJect was the only company who could provide the type of vaccine we wanted"
Dr John Brown of Acambis
"I believe we will be the first people with a fully clinically tested vaccine available"
See also:

13 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Cash link to smallpox contract denied
12 Apr 02 | Health
UK stockpiles smallpox vaccine
25 Sep 01 | Americas
WHO warns of bio-weapons risk
21 Nov 01 | Americas
US warns bio-terror 'cure' websites
04 Nov 01 | Americas
Smallpox fears after anthrax
25 Jul 01 | Americas
Q&A: Germ warfare
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