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Biden: U.S. exploring monkeypox vaccines; ‘everybody’ should be concerned

President Biden leaves Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on May 22. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

President Biden said Sunday that the United States is looking into what vaccines might be available to protect people against monkeypox, saying that “everybody” should be concerned as cases continue to spread around the world and some countries beef up their treatment stockpiles.

“We’re working on it hard to figure out what we do and what vaccine, if any, might be available for it,” Biden said from South Korea, where he has been on an official visit.

Biden said the recent spread of monkeypox infections — identified by the World Health Organization in at least 12 countries where the relatively rare disease is not endemic — could be “consequential” if it continues.

Health advisers “haven’t told me the level of exposure yet, but it is something that everybody should be concerned about,” Biden said. “It is a concern in that if it were to spread, it would be consequential.”

As monkeypox cases rise in Europe and other parts of the globe, health authorities are expressing concern about the unusual uptick. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Meryl Kornfield/The Washington Post)

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the United States has vaccines available to treat a potential monkeypox outbreak and that Biden has been briefed on the case tracks domestically and abroad. “He’s being apprised of this on a very regular basis,” Sullivan said, briefing journalists Sunday on Air Force One after departing South Korea.

Scientists are rushing to figure out what is causing the infections and how to respond. The WHO has received reports of 92 cases confirmed in a lab and 28 suspected cases under investigation in the United States, Canada, Australia and nine countries in Europe. Two countries not on the WHO list — Israel and Switzerland — reported their first confirmed cases on Saturday.

Studies suggest that the smallpox vaccine is at least 85 percent effective against monkeypox, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes that the United States has licensed two vaccines to prevent smallpox, with one being authorized specifically for monkeypox.

What is monkeypox, the rare virus now confirmed in the U.S. and Europe?

The as-yet unexplained spread of a contagious virus has set off alarm bells in a scientific community still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic — but some experts take care to note that the two are different. Monkeypox transmits less easily between humans, and there are vaccine options that have been shown to be effective against the disease.

“This is not a new virus to us. We’ve known about this virus for decades,” Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said on ABC News’s “This Week.”

“This is a virus we understand. We have vaccines against it. We have treatments against it … It’s not as contagious as covid. So I am confident we’re going be able to keep our arms around it.”

At this point, the general risk to the public from monkeypox is considered “very, very low,” Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, previously told The Washington Post.

One monkeypox infection was identified in Massachusetts, and New York City health officials said Friday that two patients were tested as part of an investigation into suspected cases of monkeypox in the state. One patient tested positive for orthopoxvirus, the family of viruses to which monkeypox belongs, “and had an illness consistent with monkeypox,” state authorities said.

Jha said he would not be surprised to see a few more cases in the coming days.

CDC tells doctors to be on alert for monkeypox as global cases rise

On Wednesday, Bavarian Nordic, the Copenhagen-based company that developed the smallpox vaccine licensed for use against monkeypox in the United States, said the U.S. government had exercised its options under an agreement with the company to “supply a freeze-dried version of JYNNEOS® smallpox vaccine, thus allowing for the first doses of this version to be manufactured and invoiced in 2023 and 2024.”

The order of new doses of the vaccine, which has a longer shelf life, is worth $119 million, Bavarian Nordic said in a news release. Under its agreement with the company, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority can still exercise options worth $180 million for about 13 million freeze-dried doses of the smallpox vaccine in the future.

A Health and Human Services spokesperson told Axios that the purchase was not a direct response to the infections but said the doses could be used to treat monkeypox.

Separately, Bavarian Nordic said it had “secured a contract with an undisclosed European country to supply its IMVANEX® smallpox vaccine in response to new cases of monkeypox evolving during May 2022.” Imvanex, as the Jynneos vaccine is known in Europe, is licensed there only for the treatment of smallpox, but it has been used “off-label” in previous monkeypox incidents.

At least two European countries have moved to stockpile vaccines in a possible effort to get ahead of the spread. British Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed Friday that the United Kingdom — where the WHO says 21 to 30 monkeypox infections have been reported — has “procured further doses of vaccines that are effective against Monkeypox.”

Meanwhile, Spain is preparing to purchase thousands of additional doses of the Imvanex vaccine, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported. Spain is also moving to buy more of an antiviral treatment for monkeypox called Tecovirimat, according to the newspaper.

Kim reported from Tokyo. Meryl Kornfield, Hannah Knowles, Timothy Bella, Lindsey Bever and Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.

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