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.
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.