PITTSBURGH -- After anthrax was found at NBC, Tom Brokaw held up a prescription bottle during a newscast and declared: "In Cipro we trust." On Capitol Hill, politicians lined up for the small white pills after a scare there. The word on everyone's lips: Cipro.
Few people had even heard of Cipro a month ago. Now, Bayer Corp. is more than tripling its production of the drug, the only form of the powerful antibiotic ciprofloxacin approved by the Food and Drug Administration to fight anthrax.
Even with production running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is worried about a shortage.
On Tuesday, Schumer asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allow the government to purchase a generic form of the antibiotic directly from manufacturers. Bayer holds the patent for the drug until 2003.
"Knowing we have enough Cipro just in case would go a long way toward calming the public about potential shortages and hopefully dissuade people from buying, stockpiling and taking a drug they currently don't need," Schumer said.
On NBC's "Today" show Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said officials "are looking at Senator Schumer's suggestion but I do not believe we have the legal authority to do so. We're checking that out."
Bayer has promised the government it will be able to deliver 200 million Cipro tablets in the next three months. It shipped 50 million in the last month alone, Bayer spokesman Mark Ryan said.
Thompson said Wednesday that the government will be buying much of the planned output of pills to put in a government stockpile. But he added that other antibiotics also work against anthrax, "so there's many other ways that we can do it."
India's Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd. said Wednesday that Schumer had made inquiries about its generic form of Cipro, which it can't sell in the U.S. market because of the patent.
Cipro, known chemically as ciprofloxacin, received FDA approval in 1987 and is used to treat a variety of infections, including urinary tract infections and sinusitis. The drug was approved as an anthrax treatment in August last year.
Drug distributors say demand for Cipro has skyrocketed since anthrax was found at a supermarket tabloid company in Florida earlier this month and hundreds of employees were put on the antibiotic as a precaution.
The potentially deadly bacteria has since turned up in letters sent to Brokaw and to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. On Monday, the young son of an ABC News producer was also found to have a skin infection from anthrax.
"We've been watching sales since Sept. 11, when we were selling approximately 300 to 400 bottles a day," said Stewart Rahr, president of drug distributor Kinray Inc. After the first case of anthrax was reported in Florida, Rahr said sales increased to about 1,000 bottles per day. Sales jumped again - to 1,500 to 2,000 bottles per day - following the first New York case, he said.
Rahr said Bayer's ability to deliver the drug was "spotty" initially, but it is now delivering enough that the drug distributor can keep a five-day supply, or about 10,000 bottles.
Mary Kuhn, vice president of operations for Bayer, said the company has worked closely with wholesalers and retail chains to get materials directly into stores. Officials say Bayer won't raise the price above what was charged before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The government pays $1.83 for every 500 mg tablet.
Phil Schneider, president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, spoke with members during a conference call Tuesday, and was told there have been few problems filling prescriptions. The organization represents 34,000 chain pharmacies in the United States.
There have been increases in Cipro orders nationwide, Schneider said, but none are significant outside of markets in New York and southern Florida.
Before this year, only 18 instances of inhaled anthrax had been reported in the United States since the start of the 20th century, the most recent in 1976. Cutaneous, or skin, anthrax infections are more common, but are typically found only in people who work with livestock.
The current anthrax scare began after workers at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., were found to have been exposed to the bacteria. Bob Stevens, 63, a photo editor, died Oct. 5 of inhaled anthrax. Mail room worker Ernesto Blanco, 73, is hospitalized with the same disease but is expected to recover.
In New York, anthrax skin infections have been confirmed in the past week in a Brokaw assistant, Erin O'Connor, 38, and in the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer. Both are being treated with antibiotics.
Six other American Media workers and two New York lab technicians have tested positive for exposure to anthrax.
On the Net:
Bayer Corp.: http://www.bayer.com