NBC Weapons: March 20, 2004

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Anthrax Defenses. Two biotech companies in California and Britain have won contracts to produce a stockpile of new and improved anthrax vaccine to protect two million people. Vaccine manufacturers VaxGen and Avecia are racing to scale up production since the American government wants to procure enough vaccine over the next two years to protect an additional 25 million people from anthrax, a reserve big enough to cover the populations of New York City and Washington D.C. The stockpile is estimated to cost $700 million on top of the $200 million already spent, according to a congressional report.

The new vaccine is designed to be a purified and more powerful replacement from the Pentagon's existing 6 shot/18 month anthrax vaccine developed in the '50s. It is designed to become effective with three or fewer doses (within several weeks) and the Pentagon is expected to switch to the new vaccine once the FDA finishes the approval process, potentially as early as 2006. A number of reservists and National Guardsmen have refused to take the existing anthrax vaccine due to allegations of major side effects.

Health experts are trying to develop the best strategy to use the unlicensed 3-shot vaccine in combination with antibiotics and two experimental drugs also recently announced by Human Genome Sciences (HGS) and Elusys Therapeutics. The drugs are artificial antibodies that would provide immunity against anthrax if given immediately before (12 hours) or after (12-24 hours) exposure for a period of several weeks. Developed with the company's own cash in a private development effort, HGS's Abthrax drug has undergone preliminary testing in humans for safety and tolerance and has demonstrated the ability to achieve blood levels likely to be effected against anthrax. It also has prevented death monkeys and rabbits, but full effectiveness can't be judged until and unless someone is exposed to anthrax, then given the drug something unlikely prior to another anthrax attack. Ethical guidelines prevent humans from being exposed to live and potentially lethal substances in testing, 

By targeting a specific protein on the anthrax germ, the antibodies provide an alternative treatment to existing antibiotics, should a resistant strain of anthrax turn up. In combination with antibiotics, Abthrax may provide a more effective treatment regime, but HGS has said it won't move forward with further testing unless the government decides to buy the drug. Multiple drug companies are developing similar drugs in the hope of securing funding from existing programs or Project Bioshield if it clears the Senate. Doug Mohney


 


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