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By Dave Umhoefer July 30, 2012

Tommy Thompson says he created enough smallpox vaccine for “every man woman and child" in America

Defending himself against accusations he was a big spender in Washington, Tommy Thompson reminds audiences of the terrorist attacks in 2001 while he oversaw the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget.

"No secretary has ever had to deal with that," Thompson, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, told a tea-party audience on June 4, 2012 when a man challenged him on the federal debt.

Thompson spoke of the anthrax attacks that began shortly after 9/11 and the worries over biological warfare.

"At the time I was secretary, I had a few problems," he said. "A few problems, like there was not enough smallpox vaccine (for) America. Donna Shalala left me with 12 million doses of vaccine, all 1955 doses. And I created enough. I created enough vaccine to vaccinate every man woman and child against smallpox in America."

In this item we’ll examine whether the U.S. government ramped up the smallpox vaccine program as Thompson says -- and how much credit he deserves.

When asked for backup, Thompson’s campaign assembled an extensive history of the episode, including news accounts. Their math: 209 million new vaccine doses through contracts Thompson pushed for, plus 340 million old doses Thompson acquired from frozen storage at a private company, Aventis Pasteur.

The total would easily cover the population at the time, about 280 million.

Thompson is correct about how much vaccine he inherited. We found that 10 million to 15 million doses were on hand -- a stockpile that officials learned could be safely diluted to create five times as many doses.

And there is no doubt that events during Thompson’s time concluded with enough vaccine becoming available for all Americans. We heard that from Steven Adams, deputy director of the Strategic National Stockpile division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Thompson’s claim went much further. He said, "I created enough vaccine to vaccinate every man woman and child against smallpox in America."

What was his role?

He can’t -- and doesn’t -- claim credit for the 10 million to 15 million doses the government already had on hand. But Thompson did indeed help make it possible for production of 209 million new doses.

So that makes the Aventis Pasteur donation of long-stored vaccine crucial.

Let’s look first at Thompson’s math on the Aventis vaccine.

The announced amount was about 85 million doses. Thompson campaign spokesman Brian Nemoir said that number should be quadrupled to 340 million, citing a quote by an Aventis official who said he believed the doses could be diluted in the same fashion as the existing government stockpile.

Subsequent studies confirmed that and more: the Aventis doses could be effective at a 1:10 dilution ratio.

Nemoir said the government found the company, which had changed hands, so credit should go to Thompson.

But when the company and Thompson announced the deal at a March 29, 2002, news conference, both made it very clear it was Aventis that approached the government shortly after the 9/11 attacks to alert officials to the stockpile in frozen storage.

In fact, Aventis officials said they had years earlier alerted the federal government about the stockpile but officials had shown little interest, and the company was planning to dispose of it.

So this part of the total seems to fall more into the category of a lucky break.

But before we draw a conclusion, let’s hear from the key players of that era, including D.A. Henderson, who led the campaign eradicating smallpox in the 1970s, which eliminated the need for the vaccine.

In the late 1990s, in part as an adviser to Shalala, Henderson was among those pushing for production of 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine to control an outbreak in the case of the intentional release of the virus.

The move got support but moved slowly and did not come to fruition under either President Bill Clinton or President George W. Bush after his term began in January 2001.

One of Thompson’s first moves after the attacks in 2001 was to personally call Henderson and get him aboard to head the government’s bioterror preparedness response. Soon after, Thompson stunned Henderson and those pushing for 40 million vaccine doses.

Thompson wanted more, much more: enough to vaccinate every American.

Henderson was skeptical of the need but quickly realized that such a massive stockpile could help meet a broader goal of allowing the U.S. to help contain bioterror outbreaks in other countries.

The idea came from Thompson, who not only pushed it hard, but packaged it in a politically savvy way that inoculated the expensive effort from political attacks, Henderson said.

"It was a master stroke to sell it that way, for ‘every man, woman and child in America,’" Henderson recalled.

Thompson’s agency, in coordination with other departments, moved quickly to get support for and contract for private production of new vaccine. Cost estimates ranged from $1 billion to $2 billion.

Two other top experts also praised Thompson.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said Thompson and Stewart Simonson, an assistant HHS secretary, took a pragmatic, hands-on approach. Thompson brought him on as a special adviser after 9/11.

Anthony Fauci, the famed AIDS researcher who joined the bioterror effort, credits Thompson for spurring the dilution study on the existing stockpile, and says it’s "conceivable" that Aventis Pasteur was spurred to come forward in part by Thompson’s public push for more vaccine.

The company portrays it in a different light, saying it took the initiative to "remind" the government it had the old vaccine in storage.

Thompson, we think, does deserve a bit of credit for negotiating with the company to acquire the 40-year-old vaccine, which by most accounts was donated. Henderson, though, said the government paid for it.

Our rating

Thompson accurately recounted how much vaccine was on hand and was on target in saying that on his watch enough became available for "every man woman and child" in America.

He didn’t technically "create" the stockpile, but he boldly shot for the moon on its size, seamlessly sold the idea to Congress and experts and then personally drove the public and private move to a successful conclusion in just a few years -- even if some of it carried the element of luck.

We rate his claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Tea Party group grills Thompson," June 22, 2012

Email exchange with Brian Nemoir, Thompson campaign spokesman, June 26, 2012

Phone interview, Steven Adams, division of Strategic National Stockpile, July 17, 2012

Phone interview with Anthony Fauci, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, July 17, 2012

Phone interview with D.A. Henderson, Distinguished Scholar at the Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, July 17, 2012

Phone interview, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), July 17, 2012

Phone interview, Len Lavenda, spokesman, Sanofi Pasteur, July 17, 2012

Phone interview with Jason McDonald, CDC spokesperson, July 17, 2012

Email interview with Molly D'Esopo, communications specialist, Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, July 17, 2012

Phone inteview, Len Lavenda, Sanofi Pasteur spokesperson, July 17, 2012

CSPAN, video of HHS press conference, March 29, 2002

Congressional Research Service, Smallpox Vaccine Stockpile and Vaccination Policy, January 9, 2003

Oxford Journals, Cellular Immune Responses to Diluted and Undiluted Aventis Pasteur Smallpox Vaccine, August 2006

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Tommy Thompson says he created enough smallpox vaccine for “every man woman and child" in America

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