WASHINGTON — The government is preparing to buy enough experimental anthrax vaccine for 27 million people, a stockpile that would permit mass inoculations in numerous U.S. cities if terrorists launched a broad assault with the deadly germ.
The new vaccine would be the most significant addition to the national anti-terrorism stockpile since the Bush administration fulfilled a pledge to buy enough smallpox vaccine for every U.S. citizen. Until now, there has been little commercial incentive for companies to develop a modern anthrax vaccine, but the new plan would change that, creating a reserve big enough in a year or two to immunize everyone in the New York and Washington metropolitan areas -- or in other cities that might be targeted in an anthrax attack.
Two biotechnology companies, in California and in Britain, have won contracts to make an early stockpile of the unlicensed vaccine sufficient to inoculate 2 million people, and they probably will bid soon on larger contracts. Coupled with the government's successes in stockpiling smallpox vaccine and antibiotics, the anthrax purchases mean the United States will soon have a wide array of defenses against the two most important biological weapons.
Bidding documents released Thursday show the government has decided to order an additional 75 million doses, enough to vaccinate at least 25 million people. Added to the 2 million doses already on order, 9% of the country's population would be covered.
The stockpile is projected to cost at least $700 million on top of nearly $200 million already spent, according to a congressional report.
The most likely use for the vaccine, experts said, would be to inoculate the entire population of a city immediately after a terrorist attack. People might need to take antibiotics for several weeks to prevent disease until the vaccine kicked in, but after that they would be immune even if anthrax spores lingered in the city for years, as the germs are believed capable of doing.