Anthrax: serious business
Can we breathe easy yet? An examination of how safe we are as two local firms battle it out to develop a next-generation vaccine
In 2001, the everyday task of opening the mail became an exercise fraught with anxiety.
That fall—just weeks after 9/11—envelopes containing deadly anthrax spores were sent to Capitol Hill and several media companies in New York and Florida. By the time they’d been opened, 22 people in seven states had been infected. Five died, victims of inhalational anthrax, in which tiny particles become lodged deep in the lungs and spread through the rest of the body.
The apparent perpetrator of the attacks eventually was identified. But more than a decade later, reports of letters with suspicious powders continue to make news. In early March, a Washington, D.C., school was evacuated after powder spilled from a letter, though the substance turned out to be harmless.
So how safe are we from an attack—whether delivered by mail or by a terrorist using some pressurized device to disperse aerosolized anthrax downwind on a busy downtown street?
There’s widespread debate over the answer. At the heart of that debate is Emergent BioSolutions, a Rockville-based company little known to the general public.
Anthrax is believed to have been used as a weapon of war for centuries, including by Germany during World War I. But before 2001, few Americans were aware of its potential as a weapon of bioterror or of their own vulnerability to an attack.
In 2002, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta started stockpiling an anthrax vaccine for the general public that would be used both to prevent infection and to supplement the antibiotics given to those already exposed.
“[Anthrax] spores can last longer than the antibiotics are in your system,” Emergent president Daniel Abdun-Nabi explains at the firm’s headquarters on Rockville’s Research Boulevard. “So if there are residual spores in your lungs and they start to germinate and infect you, you have an antibody response [with the vaccine] that can dampen the effects of the anthrax.”
Emergent is the maker of BioThrax and is currently the government’s only source of an anthrax vaccine. “The government needs multiple suppliers. We have said that for seven years,” says Abdun-Nabi, who lives in Potomac.
On that point, Eric Richman, president and CEO of the rival firm PharmAthene, agrees.
Richman, a Potomac resident who previously worked at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, hopes to break Emergent’s hold on the anthrax vaccine market with a so-called “second-generation” vaccine.
“Competition is healthy,” Richman says. “It forces companies to improve their products.”
PharmAthene, which may move its 70 employees from Annapolis to Montgomery County by year’s end, doesn’t have a product on the market yet, but it hopes to have one by 2015. Emergent, which has roughly 800 employees, about 250 of them in the D.C. area, has BioThrax on the market right now, but also is working on a second-generation product along with enhancements to the existing vaccine.
Abdun-Nabi won’t predict when the former will be ready. “Timelines are difficult to legislate,” he says. “We’re talking about science here.”
The development of a next-generation anthrax vaccine is about more than science, though. It’s about political maneuvering and money—with rivals and critics such as Richman claiming that Emergent has aggressively guarded a multibillion-dollar monopoly on a product that could be vital to the nation’s defense. “I have never seen the tactics [Emergent has] used in any other biotech company,” Richman says.
But Emergent denies having been heavy-handed and says rivals have simply failed to match its success.
Historically, anthrax has claimed fewer fatalities than other potential agents of bioterror, such as bubonic plague and smallpox. The former killed a third of Europe during the Middle Ages; the latter killed thousands worldwide each year before being declared “eradicated” three decades ago by the World Health Organization.
The bacteria that cause smallpox and plague, however, can survive in the atmosphere for mere hours. What unnerves biodefense experts about anthrax is that its spores can linger in the environment for decades. (The Brentwood postal facility in the District was closed for more than two years and cost $130 million in cleanup and renovation after two workers died from handling contaminated letters there in 2001.)
“The difference with anthrax is that you are not contagious to other people,” says Michael Kurilla, a Rockville resident who is director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda. “You don’t ‘catch’ anthrax, so it doesn’t offer the potential for a mass epidemic or pandemic—unless you start with a source of anthrax material that can infect a lot of people at one time. And that’s why it’s always raised as a bioterrorist threat.”