Britain in talks over stockpiling anti-germ drug

War on Terrorism: Bioterrorism
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The Department of Health is in talks with the German manufacturer of Cipro about buying a quantity of the company's anti-anthrax drug. Bayer, confirmed it was one of several pharmaceutical firms that had been contacted by the Government in the wake of anthrax attacks in the US which have killed three people.

The US government last week ordered 300 million doses of the drug in a deal worth $255m (£178m). At least 12,000 people are taking antibiotics in the US and sales of Cipro in the past three weeks have been greater than in the whole of the previous year.

The Department of Health said Cipro could be used to tackle an anthrax outbreak in the UK, although it has never been specifically licensed as a treatment for the condition. It is currently prescribed for a wide range of ailments, including bronchitis, and doctors would be free to prescribe it "off-label" against anthrax.

A departmental spokesman said: "We are reviewing our stocks and supplies of a broad range of antibiotics and vaccines and talking to manufacturers. The goal is to ensure that we have sufficient stockpiles to cope with the release of a broad range of biological agents, including anthrax and smallpox."

Bayer said yesterday that it was also talking to the French government about increasing supplies of Cipro. A spokesman said: "Because the UK and French governments are involved in the Afghanistan war, these countries seem to be a little more concerned than others. So far we have had only short contact with them about potential supply, but it has been forward-looking."

The European Commission meanwhile has been inundated with calls from health ministries concerned about securing supplies of Cipro in the event of a terror attack. David Byrne, the Consumer Protection commissioner, yesterday recommended the establishment of a European diseases agency. Speaking in London, Mr Byrne conceded there was no European co-ordination on communicable diseases. He said: "In the short term, we need to carry out collectively a mapping exercise of what is in place nationally, at EU level, and internationally in terms of diagnostic capacities surveillance and preparedness".

In the long term, he added, Europe needed an agency to provide rapid reaction to a bioterror attack.

The Department of Health insisted there was no specific or credible threat of a biological attack, but said the events of 11 September and the anthrax outbreak in the US had prompted a review of contingency plans.

Cipro is the leading anthrax treatment in the US, although the regulatory authorities insist that other antibiotics, including penicillin, can be used. Doxycycline, an alternative antibiotic, is not protected by a patent and is therefore cheaper.

GlaxoSmithKline, the UK's biggest drug maker, said last week that it will supply two of its leading antibiotics to the US government free, if they are approved for anthrax treatment.