Private Sector Responds Quickly to Bioterrorism

Published December 1, 2001

As the anthrax scare has mushroomed, modern technology’s solutions have emerged like a quick strike force.

Medical treatment was instantly available with the antibiotic, Cipro. The manufacturer, Bayer Corporation, is ramping up production to produce 200 million doses in three months.

And now, new technologies are being offered to the U.S. Postal Service to sanitize and kill anthrax or other bacteria before the mail is sorted, delivered, or opened.

Pharmaceutical Companies Respond

It is worth noting that all of these solutions to a public health threat have come from the private sector.

Cipro was introduced by Bayer in 1987. It is approved to treat 14 different ailments, including respiratory and urinary tract infections. Just last year, the company completed the expensive and complex process necessary to add anthrax to that list.

Bayer announced it will work around the clock to meet demand for the product.

It is also clear that other medicines are effective against the anthrax threat. The Food and Drug Administration informed physicians on October 18 they could use another antibiotic, doxycycline, to treat anthrax “in all its forms.”

Pfizer introduced doxycycline under the brand name Vibramycin in 1967. While the company is ready to produce as much of the compound as needed, generic manufacturers also can manufacture, it since Pfizer’s patent has expired.

With additional drugs and huge manufacturing capability available, shortages of anthrax-targeting drugs are highly unlikely. “This is a perfect show of our U.S. market working well—a dynamic generic sector and a dynamic research-based sector working hand in hand,” a Pfizer executive observed.

Preventing the Threat

Not merely prepared to respond to the anthrax threat once Americans have been exposed, the private sector may be able to prevent exposure in the first place, through irradiation technology. A large and robust industry already uses irradiation to sanitize medical supplies and to treat fruits, vegetables, and meats to increase their shelf life and kill harmful bacteria.

Irradiation equipment is capable of zapping the products in bulk, often on assembly lines, and there is strong evidence irradiation also could kill powdered bacterial spores of anthrax in unopened mail.

According to Jeffrey Barach of the National Food Processors Association, “Irradiation doesn’t do anything to [harm] the mail. It certainly doesn’t make the produce radioactive or leave any residue.”

Out of the Way

It is vital that our federal government, in this time of crisis, not undermine the free-market dynamics that make these resources available.

That almost happened in Canada in late October. In a panic, Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray decided to stockpile Cipro and asked a Canadian generic drug manufacturer, Apotex Inc., to produce the pills, clearly violating Bayer’s patent on the drug.

Canadian officials said they ordered the generics under a government emergency clause because they feared Bayer couldn’t meet the order. After a firestorm of opposition, the government backed down.

Under an agreement with the Canadian government, Bayer will supply one million Cipro tablets within 48 hours on demand. In return, Canadian health authorities will respect the company’s existing patent rights and will acquire the antibiotic exclusively from Bayer during the period of patent protection.

“The moment that Bayer said we have bins of pills in the warehouse and you can have them tomorrow, there was nothing else [for the government] to talk about,” one Canadian official said. “There is no way that the Patent Act cannot be respected.”

New York Senator Charles Schumer also threatened to violate Bayer’s intellectual property rights when he called for U.S. government action to allow generic production of Cipro. Fortunately, our government is doing the right thing at the moment.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says he has no “current plans” to override Bayer’s patent protection. Let’s just hope he drops the “current” from future statements. Violating a firm’s patent would be a devastating blow to the research-based pharmaceutical industry . . . and to anyone relying on their products.

Discouraging Future R&D

Pharmaceutical firms invest, on average, more than $500 million in research to bring a single new drug to market. Violating pharmaceutical patent rights today would discourage the development of products that will be needed to address new health threats in the future.

If the government were to steal their intellectual property, what possible incentive would pharmaceutical companies have to continue to make such an investment for the future so they can be ready to respond to the next threat?

It is clearly in all of our interest that the government respect the rules of play, so the private sector can continue to be a vital partner in the war against terrorism.

Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a health policy research organization based in Alexandria, Virginia.