Almost 9 years after letters laced with weapons-grade anthrax spores killed 5 people and inflamed fears about bioterrorism, the US still relies on a single anthrax vaccine maker that uses expensive, impractical, decades-old technology.
The company is Emergent BioSolutions, and its BioThrax vaccine is its only product. Emergent has copped $1.4 billion in federal contracts for the vaccine in the last decade alone.
Twice before, the Feds tried to find cheaper anthrax vaccines and increase the number of vaccine suppliers. In 2004, it awarded an $877 million contract to VaxGen, but aggressive lobbying by Emergent and manufacturing problems at VaxGen forced the Feds to void that contract.
A second RFP that was released last year by Barda–the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority–was halted after officials determined that no supplier could produce a vaccine quickly enough.
That was a setback for PharmAthene, a rival to Emergent. PharmAthene claims that heavy lobbying by Emergent scuttled what it thought was a sure win. Emergent spent $4 million in lobbying during 2009 to maintain its monopoly.
BioThrax requires the administration of 5 doses over 18 months, and costs the Feds $120 per person immunized. PharmAthene’s SparVax would cost $45 per person. That vaccine remains in testing, however. In fact, PharmAthene has no products on the market right now.
Barda is also hoping to lure some large consortiums into the field, including one involving Merck, GE and and the University of Pittsburgh, but they remain leery of the risks.
“The country needs an anthrax vaccine that requires fewer injections, produces fewer side effects and is made using modern techniques,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired a federal commission that questioned the nation’s bioterror readiness earlier this year.
UPDATE: At the time this post is being scheduled for publication, the Washington Post is reporting that Emergent BioSolutions will soon announce that it “received a contract worth up to $107 million to ready its anthrax vaccine for large-scale manufacture.
According to Emergent, the contract will pay for the company to develop and obtain regulatory approval for large-scale manufacture of BioThrax.
The award is based on an Emergent proposal that says the company can produce 26 million doses annually, a significant increase from the roughly 7 million to 9 million it generates today.”