As the bioterrorism threat grows, the US government's intervention in the drugs market is threatening to create problems of its own.
With thousands of Americans now being tested for exposure to anthrax, Washington's efforts have focused on Cipro, Bayer's ultra-strong antibiotic that is used to fight the disease. Those efforts have been rewarded by a 60 per cent price cut, and a promise from Bayer to churn the drug out on a round-the-clock basis.
But that pricing pressure has prompted an outcry from Brazil, South Africa and other developing countries which have been struggling for years to force down the price of Aids drugs and other vital treatments, but with very limited success. Those countries claim that with daily Aids deaths in double figures, they have a better case than the US for declaring a national emergency. That, warn analysts, is causing a rift that could derail the World Trade Organisation meeting in Qatar next month – a failure the Bush administration is desperate to avoid.
Meanwhile, the US government's intervention is making drugs companies nervous about their future ability to defend their intellectual property. The Cipro debate has reopened the thorny issue of patents, and whether individual governments should be able to override them in an emergency.
Political intervention isn't limited to the US. Aventis of France has become the latest drugs giant to take orders from the government. Its immunology division, Aventis Pasteur, produces a unique anthrax vaccine and the company has been ordered to produce a further three million doses by the end of the year. Unfortunately, this vaccine can't be used to innoculate large populations. "It does have very severe side-effects," says an Aventis spokesman. "The idea is to have a big batch ready to protect a particular group of people when they have been identified as being at specific risk."
Political demands are particularly heavy on the biotechnology industry, which is seen as offering the best chance of "miracle" remedies to potential bioterror threats. In a strategy resembling one adopted during the Second World War, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has set up a task force to work with the government to match emerging drug demands with the companies best able to deal with them.
That process has given a surprise boost to the fortunes of Acambis, a UK-based biotechnology company which had already been signed up to supply 40 million doses of a new smallpox vaccine by 2004. Now US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has increased the Acambis contract to 54 million doses and accelerated the production schedule.
It was a similar story at Tetracore, a tiny US biotech firm whose main product is a test strip that indicates when anthrax, botulism, plague or other toxins are present. That company is also understood to be rushing to fill a massive government order.