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The U.S. Congress headed for the hills on Wednesday after it was reported that the anthrax sample received at Senator Tom Daschle’s office on Monday may have gotten into the ventilation system of the Senate’s Hart Office Building. By mid-morning Wednesday some 29 Daschle staffers had already tested positive for exposure to anthrax, and hundreds […]

The Anthrax Chronicles

by Steve Perry

The U.S. Congress headed for the hills on Wednesday after it was reported that the anthrax sample received at Senator Tom Daschle’s office on Monday may have gotten into the ventilation system of the Senate’s Hart Office Building. By mid-morning Wednesday some 29 Daschle staffers had already tested positive for exposure to anthrax, and hundreds of others Capitol Hill staffers were standing in line to get nasal swabs. House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that House offices would close until at least next Tuesday, and the Senate was expected to follow suit. Congress is effectively closed until the middle of next week. Around mid-day came word that spores had also been found in offices of New York Governor George Pataki.

Despite the innumerable official-sounding speculations, no one knows where the anthrax originated or what it may bode for the future. The Daschle mailing, like the letter sent to NBC’s Tom Brokaw, was postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey. But if official accounts are to be believed, the spores contained in the Daschle letter were enormously more potent than any of the other anthrax samples seen to date. Televised CNN reports made ambiguous reference to the possibility that the Florida and D.C. anthrax mailings came from “different groupings,” but it wasn’t clear whether that meant they represented different strains of the bacteria, or just that they had been processed at separate facilities by different means. In either case it underlined the relative ease of acquiring and transporting anthrax bacteria. Processing the spores into “weapons-grade” packages containing spores of 1 to 10 microns in size may be a sophisticated procedure, but acquiring the raw materials was simple as could be until very recently-and there’s no telling how long the perpetrators have possessed it or how they got it.

These matters aside, there’s no denying that the use of the U.S. Postal Service was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the perpetrators. It’s a virtually untraceable delivery system (investigators pursuing the Trenton connection admitted on Tuesday that the mailing to Daschle’s office might have come from any of 46 different postal branches, and probably did not come from a resident of Trenton) that maximizes the element of fear and paralysis and makes the most of what may-or may not-be limited supplies of the bacilli. It likewise circumvents the problem of coordination and possible detection associated with a more public release of anthrax spores. The perpetrators have succeeded in creating the impression they can go anywhere: The sites infiltrated in the past few days include two major media networks, a titan of American capitalism-the Microsoft offices in Reno, Nevada-and two prominent state and federal government facilities.

Cipro: Public health vs. corporate patents

Meanwhile the patent lawyers fiddle as Rome smolders. Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical company that holds the patent on Cipro, the antibiotic of choice in treating anthrax exposure, is working round the clock to stave off international calls for the violation of its copyright in the interest of public health. On Tuesday New York Senator Charles “Boomer” Schumer joined the chorus calling for the broad-scale licensing of generic manufacturing of Cipro clones to combat the prospective rise in anthrax exposure. Bayer responded by promising to ramp up its production of Cipro from 15 to 60 million tablets per month. Even at that level, the stores of Cipro would be sufficient to treat only half a million exposures-and scares-around the world, since the preventative course of Cipro involves two tablets daily for 60 days. This is not to mention the cost factor: Under patent protections, Cipro presently costs $350 a month in the United States, but according to the New York Times, the same formula from “reputable suppliers” costs only $10 a month in India.

But set aside the cost and consider the broader ramifications. Capacity for treating half a million may seem a lot, but it’s a paltry sum from a public health standpoint given the rapidly escalating number of anthrax threats in the U.S. alone. The Schumer proposal is entirely sensible and prudent, and his office notes that at least three other drug manufacturers could be flooding the market with generic Cipro substitutes within two to three months if given the go-ahead. But the Bush administration’s Department of Health and Human Services is so far on the side of corporate patents. Said HHS flak Kevin Keane on Tuesday: “We’ll certainly take a look at the senator’s proposal, but we don’t see the need right now. Right now we have enough Cipro and other antibiotics for the contingencies before the American public. If we have an emergency, the manufacturers can turn this around quickly. We have to be careful about patent protections-there’s a balance there.”

As the Wednesday New York Times feature makes clear, there are provisions in U.S. law that allow the government to ignore any drug patent with impunity and allow competitors to make a generic equivalent. But so far the Bush administration is loath to do so. For one they are worried that any invocation of a national emergency to violate the Bayer patent on Cipro would set a dangerous precedent for the release of patented AIDS drugs in Africa. Many of the drugs in question are of course patented by American drug companies. National crises come and go, but business is business. CP

Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.