WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Tuesday the government does not accept Bayer Corp.'s price for the antibiotic Cipro, used to treat anthrax infection and will negotiate with the pharmaceutical company for a lower price.
During a House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations hearing, relocated by the ongoing anthrax sweeps of congressional office buildings to HHS headquarters, Thompson, as well as other public health and defense officials were questioned on the status of treatment and vaccine programs against anthrax, smallpox and other possible bioterrorism agents.
"We convene in an unaccustomed place to discuss an unprecedented need for vaccines to protect against the most unnatural outbreaks of disease imaginable, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "Today, as the threat of anthrax infection has become a grim reality, we remain without adequate (vaccine) supplies."
Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said government officials should be clear in telling pharmaceutical companies they would not be profiting from the current situation. Thompson's opening statement left no doubt that will be the case.
"We will not accept the price (Bayer) offered, and we will be negotiating this afternoon," Thompson said.
Sanders questioned Bayer's ability to quickly produce the additional Cipro it has promised, and said additional sources are necessary.
Thompson, who has said he wanted 12 million doses of Cipro, said HHS is ready to ask Congress for the authority to force generic, low-cost production of the drug to meet public needs.
The ongoing investigation will intensify with any further cases of anthrax exposure, Thompson said, with particular emphasis on protecting postal workers.
"The Centers for Disease Control, when a case of anthrax does emerge, will move in at any and all postal facilities that might have handled that piece of mail," Thompson said. "We'll make medicine immediately available to those employees who may have been at risk of exposure."
Thompson also outlined more than $300 million in additional funding the Bush administration wants to devote to near-term state and local bioterrorism defense.
Hospitals would receive $50 million for resources needed to handle any mass immunization efforts, and $88 million would go toward an immediate response to a bioterrorism attack, including increased medical lab resources and epidemiologist teams.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., told Thompson several public health specialists call the $300 million inadequate, and suggested more than $1 billion is necessary. Thompson said more funding is certainly needed going forward, but the initial plan is a "giant first step" in improving U.S. capabilities.
Thompson reiterated the administration's $1.5 billion push to increase vaccine and medicine stockpiles. Part of that effort includes tests on how to stretch the country's current 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The vaccine can be diluted yet remain effective, Fauci testified: at one-fifth strength, 75 million people can be treated. Since the undiluted vaccine already meets federal drug standards, the diluted vaccine could be made available within months, he said.
Thompson said the government has enough dilutant and injection kits to create the larger stockpile. Several companies are interested in restarting production of the undiluted vaccine for longer-term needs, he said. There is no near-term need to begin vaccinating large portions of the population, Thompson said, nor is there any need to being general distribution of Cipro.
Dr. Anna Johnson-Winegar, deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for chemical/biological defense, said in prepared testimony that the Defense Department plans to spend more than $1.3 billion on vaccine creation. The efforts focus on five diseases or toxins besides smallpox and anthrax: Plague, tularemia, equine encephalitis, botulism and ricin, a toxin derived from castor beans, she said.
Results from these efforts may be a long ways off, however. Basic quantities of smallpox vaccine would be available late next year, Winegar said, and supplies of a next-generation anthrax vaccine are not expected until 2007.