“There’s concern about what the pharmaceutical industry thinks, but we’re in an emergency,” New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer told The New York Times on October 18 about his threat to override Bayer’s patent on its anthrax treatment, Cipro. In turn, advocates for affordable anti-HIV drug pricing couldn’t help but grumble -- struck, after all, by the apparent double standard for a public-health threat that affects ordinary people in a privileged land. Where, they asked, were these voices of sacrifice for the greater good when a stealth microbe menaced Brazil and Botswana? By October 31, The New York Times’ editorial page was asking the same question.

The anthrax anxiety has literally brought home pharma economics in a way AIDS never did. U.S. patent law permits the government to bypass patent-holders in cases of “national emergency or extreme urgency.” But it remains unclear how this escape hatch differs from the compulsory-license loophole included in the 1994 World Trade Agreement. According to Treatment Action Group’s Mark Harrington, a government can issue a compulsory license -- override a patent -- “for any reason whatsoever.”

Just two days after Schumer’s threat, the Canadian government announced it would ignore the Bayer patent and ordered a Toronto-based generics company to churn out a million ciprofloxacin tabs with all due speed. Then, stung by criticism of his bumbling leadership, Tommy Thompson, head of the U.S. health department, issued Bayer a similar threat. Finally, the German-based druggie vowed to halve its Cipro cost, other makers of off-label anti-anthrax drugs promised a free giveaway in exchange for FDA approval, and the CDC upped the ante by recommending doxycycline instead of Cipro for anthrax.

Yet, as the Times editorial pointed out at press time, at the World Trade Organization meeting in early November, the U.S. is set to oppose the Brazil-led push to make it easier for countries to manufacture or import low-cost drugs, especially the $10,000-per-year anti-AIDS cocktail. “Anthrax has killed a handful of Americans so far. AIDS has killed 22 million worldwide,” the Times penned. “Americans today can surely understand the need to give poor countries every possible weapon to fight back.”