The discovery that the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle’s office was military-grade is rather shocking; anthrax is most deadly when made into a fine powder, something highly difficult to do. It had been thought that only the United States and the USSR had succeeded in creating aerosolized anthrax (which can be easily disseminated through the air and is more likely to be inhaled; anthrax is much deadlier in the lungs). I hope we find who did this and render them utterly incapable of doing anything like this again for a long, long time; I hope the yahoos who have been making fake anthrax threats enjoy the years they’re going to spend in jail. Obviously, this is terrible and scary and we need to get to the bottom of it as soon as we can. But my irony alarm started ringing when I read Senator Charles Schumer’s suggestion that generic ciproflaxin be produced immediately. Ciproflaxin (brand name Cipro), the only antibiotic approved by the FDA to treat anthrax, is a product of German chemical giant Bayer AG; although the life sciences division of Bayer has struggled to make headway against giants like Merck and Pfizer, it’s probably the reason you’re familiar with Bayer, the company that invented asprin (and, less famously, heroin). But Cipro doesn’t go off-patent until 2003, 17 years after the patent was issued.
The World Trade Organization’s WIPO rulings on intellectual property specifically allow for forcing patent owners to license their patent to a local manufacturer (with certain restrictions) during a public health crisis. I’ve written about this before in relation to the AIDS epidemic in Brazil and South Africa, and it disturbs now as it did then that America was willing to give countries flak about using a perfectly sensible provision in international law. There’s a reason that Article 31 allows for compulsory licensing "in the case of a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency or in cases of public non-commercial use"; we’re seeing that now.
I’m wavering between finding it blackly humorous and just sad that an anthrax attack — detected early, anthrax is usually treatable (link via Matt over at MetaFilter), which makes all the runs on Cipro by scared people and the booming business for the loathsome reptiles who exploit them not only dangerous on a public health level but also not particularly useful for individuals — seems to make those nasty anti-Big-Pharma thoughts acceptable while a 10% rate of HIV infection among South Africans doesn’t.
Anthrax is scary but treatable (especially if someone, be it Bayer or one of the generic drug manufacturers like Mylan, starts ramping up production; Bayer has already begun to do so). I just need to keep that in mind: scary but treatable. It’ll help banish those dark, The Stand-esque thoughts about a cloud of spores drifting into Maryland over the DC line. Scary but treatable. The implications are worrying me too, though. Aerosolized anthrax isn’t something you brew in a basement. It isn’t even something you make in a cave in Afghanistan. You can make anthrax yourself, but it won’t be the super-fine military-grade stuff — the Japanese cult Aum Shiryinko grew their own, but they encountered problems with the delivery mechanism, infected no one, and turned to bags full of sarin in the Japanese subway. Whoever’s been sending this anthrax at the very least purchased it from a nation.
Which nation? From what I’ve read, assuming it’s not American stock that went missing, the choices seem to be limited to Russia and Iraq. What do we do if it’s Iraq? George Bush the Elder seriously considered whether to order a retaliatory nuclear strike on Baghdad in the event biological or chemical weapons were used on coalition forces during the Gulf War. The chance that I’ll live to see nuclear weapons used increased slightly but measurably this week.
And if it acquired from Russia — presumably from disaffected army officers or scientists who had access to the stuff and wouldn’t say boo to millions of dollars of terrorist money — that’s terrifying. Russia’s bioweapons are monstrous; an outbreak of smallpox, the devil in the freezer (to use The Hot Zone author Richard Preston’s phrase — and Preston seems to know what he’s talking about on these issues) would make anthrax delivered in envelopes look like popguns. I want the people who are mailing anthrax put in the ground, to be honest, but maybe I can dispell any nagging worry (scary but treatable, scary but treatable) by thinking about just how much worse it could be.