WASHINGTON— Two pharmaceutical companies are engaged in a pitched battle—replete with name-calling, hefty lobbying, and Capitol Hill intrigue—over a government contract to supply anthrax vaccine in the U.S. The U.S. government plans to make its third attempt since 2001 to find a company that will make a modern vaccine, trying to expand the pool of suppliers beyond a manufacturer with a decade-long monopoly on the medicine, officials said. Nearly nine years after mysterious letters containing anthrax spores led to five deaths and spread fears of the threat of bioterrorism, the U.S. has only one anthrax vaccine, which is based on a 50-year-old technology. It is made by Emergent BioSolutions Inc., a small drug company with a big presence in Washington. Its only marketed product is BioThrax, the anthrax vaccine. Twice the government has sought alternatives that could be cheaper and easier to administer. Biotech company VaxGen Inc. won an $877 million government contract in 2004 but lost it two years later after lobbying by Emergent and manufacturing problems. Last year, the administration halted its second request for bids after assessing no one could supply a vaccine quickly enough, dealing a blow to Emergent rival PharmAthene Inc., which had high hopes of winning a contract. Now Emergent and Pharm Athene are sharpening their elbows as the Department of Health and Human Services gears up to solicit bids a third time, in the wake of reports contending the U.S. isn't ready for a bioterrorism attack. A federal commission on weapons of mass destruction in January gave the Obama administration an "F" for bioterror preparedness. Robin Robinson, the head of the health department's bioterrorism unit—the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or "Barda" for short—said in an interview the government has a "strong commitment against the anthrax biothreat." Federal officials say a next-generation anthrax vaccine using biotechnology could be cheaper and more convenient. Emergent's old BioThrax vaccine involves five doses over 18 months. The government paid about $120 per course of treatment for BioThrax in a 2007 contract, according to a government news release, while PharmAthene's SparVax, still in testing, would cost about $45 per course of treatment, says PharmAthene Chief Executive Eric Richman. Emergent also has a modern vaccine candidate: The company is working to improve VaxGen's rejected vaccine, which it bought in 2008. "The country needs an anthrax vaccine that requires far fewer injections, produces far fewer side effects and is made using modern techniques," said former Sen. Bob Graham, who was co-chairman of the federal commission that questioned the nation's bioterror readiness this year. Since 2000, Emergent has received at least 99 contracts, valued at about $1.4 billion, government records show. Almost all of its $235 million in 2009 revenue came from vaccine-related government contracts. Formed in 2001, PharmAthene doesn't have any marketed products. It relies entirely on government contracts and the hope of future orders. SparVax, its anthrax vaccine, derives from technology originally developed by U.K. government scientists. Allen Shofe, Emergent's top in-house lobbyist, called Pharm Athene "a virtual company run by a bunch of political hacks" operating "out of a warehouse."
PharmAthene's Mr. Richman called Mr. Shofe's criticism "sophomoric."