The recent discovery of the poisonous substance Ricin on envelopes mailed to President Barack Obama as well as United States Senators have prompted an investigation into the ability to vaccinate against the deadly substance. One vaccination candidate was developed by immunologist Ellen Vitetta, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Her vaccine has shown to be effective in both animals and humans at creating antibodies that fight off ricin poisoning and increase the efficacy of anti-toxins by creating a stronger immune response in a vaccinated individual. It is called RiVax, and is being made by the company Soligenix.
While the vaccine is effective, its development has been prevented by budgetary constraints at Soligenix, as well as the very limited need for protection from ricin.
“It basically is not going anywhere,” says Vitetta. “It’s disappointing and upsetting.” After a frightening event such as the ricin-laced letters, “everyone wants to know where the vaccines are. Somebody has to think this work is important enough to fund us and let us finish it.”
Ricin: Frightening Idea, Limited Danger
The problem is that ricin poison is not effective as a means of widespread harm. While a smallpox outbreak could potentially kill millions if it occurred in a large population center – particularly one with an international airport – ricin doesn’t have that kind of reach.
Basically, ricin could be used to assassinate a single person, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. It is only truly deadly when rendered into a powder which must then be inhaled. It can also be ingested, but unless individuals are taking deep breaths of their mail or eating strange foods from unknown sources, it is unlikely to do much damage.
Even more importantly is that ricin doesn’t have any transmitting factors. It cannot be spread through contact, making it a very poor weapon of mass destruction. It is not contagious, which is why it might be good for a one-time assassination – assuming it came from a trusted source – but it is useless for causing significant loss of life.
This is why there is not a greater push in the pharmaceutical industry to vaccinate against it. It just isn’t dangerous enough.
Facts about ricin
Ricin is produced from the beans of a castor oil plant, which are relatively easy to obtain. The problem is it requires a very strong background in botany, chemistry, or an equally rigorous scientific discipline to refine it down to its deadliest form. Even then it is only good if eaten or inhaled. The letters found laced with ricin in the United States were not well refined and contained less than 1% toxin.
Even if added to a municipal water supply, ricin breaks down quickly when exposed to sunlight or chlorination.
According to the CDC in order to kill a large population, several tons of ricin powder would need to be produced and then air-dropped over the area. Someone would initially need thousands of pounds of castor oil beans in order to produce that much ricin.
Ricin that is absorbed through the skin or eye might cause irritation, but it must enter the body through the pulmonary or gustatory system to be dangerous, and even then its effect is spotty.