It's a little difficult to figure how any company could have flubbed an opportunity for good PR more than Bayer has in recent days.
As you probably know, Bayer is the manufacturer of the Anthrax-fighting drug Cipro. As it turns out, there are several antibiotics that seem effective against the particular strain of Anthrax popping up in media mail rooms around the United States. But apparently that's because this strain is quite susceptible to treatment. The point is that Cipro is the gold standard: it would apparently work against certain strains which other antibiotics couldn't handle. (To wit, if I get exposed to Anthrax of unknown provenance, I want Cipro; and you probably do too.)
So, in addition to helping a lot of people, Bayer could have used this as an opportunity to get a lot of well-earned good press. At the end of the day there's almost no way Bayer wouldn't end up making lots of money off this scare, even if the United States or Canada gave temporary permission for generic manufacturers to make Cipro also.
Wasn't this a no-brainer? A way for a major drug manufacturer to demonstrate that it was fundamentally in the business of health, not simply interested in the bottom line?
The argument for loosening the patent isn't that the government couldn't afford buying tons of Cipro (though that too is an important issue), but that Bayer may well not be able to satisfy the almost incalculable demand.
So far Bayer has been issuing assurances that it can keep up with demand and resisting any efforts to enlist generic manufacturers to supply government stockpiles. But obviously their capacity must have some limits. And the country seems pretty obviously to be in a situation in which we shouldn't allow any arbitrary limit (the production capacity of a single company) to keep us from getting as much as we need of the choicest drug (Cipro).
What's a little distressing is that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson seems inclined to make up the shortfall in Bayer's production capacity with drugs like doxycycline and penicillin, rather than allowing other manufacturers to make Cipro. Again these two other drugs seem to work fine against this strain of Anthrax. But everything I've heard to date indicates that Cipro would likely be effective against a broader range of strains. (Remember, everyone currently under treatment is getting the good stuff, Cipro. So why scrimp?)
Setting aside the Bayer patent -- perhaps to let generic manufacturers produce Cipro exclusively for government stockpiles -- would not necessarily mean abrogating the law. According to Senator Chuck Schumer, current law contains exceptions for just this sort of pressing national emergency.
So there are a lot of medical facts which are uncertain at this point. And it's possible that Thompson will adopt a stronger line. But at the moment at least it seems like he is letting an over-zealous concern for patent law get in the way of public health.
Just a thought.