Monkeypox virus. / reuters

Spain considers buying smallpox vaccines to prevent monkeypox virus

The European health authorities recommend vaccinating anyone who has been in close contact with someone who is diagnosed with the virus

ÁLVARO SOTO Madrid

The Spanish Ministry of Health is preparing to buy thousands of smallpox vaccines which will also serve to prevent the monkeypox virus. Health minister Carolina Darias said the viability and effectiveness of different options are currently being studied by the Spanish Medications and Health Products Agency. In addition to the vaccines, the government is also thinking of acquiring anti-viral drugs to treat patients with the illness.

The vaccine, which is made by the Danish laboratory Bavarian Nordik, is called Imvanex and was approved by the European Medications Agency in 2013, but only for smallpox, although the US regulator also gave it the green light for monkeypox virus. It consists of two 0.5 ml doses, given 28 days apart.

The EMA explained that Imvanex contains a modified form of the virus called Ankara cowpox, which does not cause the illness in humans and cannot reproduce in human cells. Due to its similarity to the smallpox virus, the antibodies produced also help to protect against monkeypox.

The vaccine will be administered in Spain to people who have had close contact with someone with monkeypox virus. So far there have been seven confirmed cases in Spain and another 29 are being studied, all in Madrid except one in Gran Canaria.

New cases are appearing elsewhere as well. The UK, which was the first to raise the alarm, has nine confirmed cases, Portugal five and Sweden and Italy have reported one case each.

Anti-virals should be given in severe cases

There is a problem regarding the smallpox vaccine which does not occur with other vaccines: not all countries have supplies. Spain stopped giving it in the 1980s when the illness was eradicated, and its use has been strictly restricted for questions of national defence against a bioterrorist attack using this virus. In 2003, facing the possibility that international terrorist organisations could develop the virus in laboratories, the ministries of Health and Defence jointly procured two million vaccines. If countries have supplies at the moment, it is because at some point they decided to stock up.

The European authorities say that anti-virals should be given in severe cases, and suspect cases should be isolated, tesed and quickly notified, and their contacts should be traced. They also recommend that governments should carry out campaigns to raise awareness of possible infection of monkeypox virus in men who have sexual relations with other men, people who have casual sex or intercourse with multiple partners.