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Dear Mr. Secretary: Letter to Health and Human Services Sec. Tommy Thompson

26 October 2001

Dear Mr. Secretary,

Congratulations on your deal with the Bayer Corporation of Germany. The newspapers all seem very excited. You got Bayer to give you a cut price on their famous anti-anthrax drug, Cipro. Bayer has agreed to sell the administration 100 million tablets at 95 cents a piece, instead of their usual $4.67 a pill. Congress will only be paying Bayer $95 million, instead of almost half a billion dollars. That's great! I did have one question. It's about India. Last week, the government of India offered to give the United States $1 million worth of generic Cipro as a gift to help us with the anthrax scare. That would buy some 10 million tablets in India, where Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals sells their version of the same antibiotic for around 10 cents a pill. Ten million tablets could treat more than 833,000 people absolutely free! Wouldn't that be helpful?

The Indian government's offer did not receive much media attention even though it ran on several news wires, but I urge you to track down India's External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and take him up on his offer on our behalf.

Under your deal, Bayer cut the price of Cipro for the government, but it hasn't cut the price for private citizens who might need to buy some down the road.

I know, I know, nobody should be taking Cipro -- or ciprofloxacin, as it is called when Bayer doesn't make it -- unless they have good reason to believe they may have been exposed. But you've said the United States needs enough medicine to treat some 10 million people if the threat worsens -- and that probably doesn't even count folks, like the governor of New York, who misguidedly take it "just to be sure."

The usual treatment requires 120 pills per person; that's 1.2 billion pills. That's a lot of Cipro, and it's unclear if Bayer can even produce that much in a short time. In fact, it seems you are already dealing with shortages, if the government's recent response to events is any clue.

When those two postal workers died of anthrax after handling Senator Daschle's mail, a whole lot of government employees had good reason to get frightened. I know there are various drugs available to treat some kinds of anthrax, but the government chose Cipro to give to postal workers, and gave some out free of charge. Good for you.

We're still a bit concerned. The postal workers in Washington were given only ten days worth of Cipro. Your colleagues on Capitol Hill were given a sixty-day supply. Is that because there are shortages of Cipro, Mr. Secretary? If Cipro's the drug you think is best in these circumstances, wouldn't it be great to have a cheaper supply -- and a whole lot of free pills -- for those who are at risk, so that everyone who needs it could get the same professionally-approved standard dose?

If we bought the pills from India, we'd only pay $20 to treat a person with a complete ciprofloxacin therapy. The government could get the same number of pills they're getting from Bayer at one-tenth of the price, and could even resell to citizens who would otherwise have to pay 28 times as much. The Bush administration's always telling us that government should be frugal, and our national budget is suddenly bleeding red ink. Don't savings like these make sense?

Besides, Mr. Thompson, from what you've said in the past about welfare, I know you are a big believer in competition and the free market. You said women who'd been receiving welfare in your home state of Wisconsin were getting soft because of too much government aid.

Bayer owns the patent on Cipro until 2003 (a drug, by the way that was pushed through the FDA by government studies and the military's endorsement), and that that patent protects their monopoly in the U.S. market. But in this emergency situation, I think Bayer should have to compete -- just like those Wisconsin women had to! -- Even with firms in India, who can produce the same product more cheaply, and get it to us fast.

We're pretty scared out here, Mr. Secretary, and we care a lot more about protecting people than corporate patents right now. Don't you?

Laura Flanders.
Published by WorkingforChange.

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