ABC warrior | 18.10.2001 21:47
Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK
Anthrax fears prompt patent law review
Ciproflaxin kills not only anthrax but also other bacteria
By BBC Science's Julian Siddle
The fear of contracting anthrax has led to pharmacies in the US running out of antibacterial drugs.
The demand is now so great that the US Government is considering relaxing patent laws on these drugs, notably ciprofloxacin, to make more available.
The move comes at a time when aid agencies have been lobbying governments to overturn patents of drugs vital for the treatment of Aids to allow their use in developing countries.
Ciprofloxacin is a powerful antibiotic; it not only kills anthrax but also a vast range of other bacteria.
The patent for this drug is owned by the German chemical giant Bayer, which manufactures the drug under the brand name Cipro.
The US has opposed the relaxation of drug patent laws
Demand has increased so much that Bayer plans to triple its production.
However, the US administration is concerned about the cost; a month's supply of Cipro costs $350.
But in countries such as India where US patent laws do not apply, a locally produced generic form of the drug can be obtained for just $10.
Now there are proposals, coming from the US Senate, that the government should buy this cheaper form of the drug and import it.
This would normally contravene US patent regulations, but under American law, patents can be ignored if the government says it needs the product.
However companies may be able to sue for compensation if they lose sales to generic drugs.
Allowing drug patents to be relaxed or ignored in other countries is something that the US has been fiercely opposed to.
Many developing countries, which want to obtain cheaper generic drugs for the treatment of killer diseases such as Aids, have faced the threat of trade sanctions and US-backed litigation.
Aid agencies now hope that the US will develop a more sympathetic attitude to the plight of developing countries, where according to Oxfam as many as 37,000 people die every day from diseases that could be readily treated if only the drugs were affordable.