The bioterrorism threat is real and demands attention, but media coverage of anthrax has spun wildly out of control. That raises a perennial question: Do reporters just respond to Americans' thirst for information, or do they hype that information out of all proportion to its worth?
In regard to coverage of Bayer's Cipro (ciprofloxacin), the hype prevails. Although media outlets acknowledged there were other therapies available to treat anthrax, most of them endorsed Cipro as the bastion against the disease-epitomized by NBC's Tom Brokaw's proclamation "In Cipro We Trust."
The extensive coverage fueled reckless stockpiling of the drug, snowballing into even more media attention until there was 100 percent consumer awareness of the product, according to Bayer. Had the news media promoted doxycycline, penicillin, and other antibacterial treatments the way they did Cipro, Americans may not have panicked to the same degree, recognizing the pharma industry's ability to provide various treatments in ample quantities."The media depicted Cipro as the product and only product, which simply isn't true," says a spokesperson from Mylan Laboratories, one of several manufacturers of doxycycline. (See "Anthrax Rx.") Pharma companies allowed that to happen by communicating very little to the news media or, by extension, to the public.
Pfizer spokesperson Bob Hubert says Vibramycin, the brand-name version of doxycycline, is traditionally used to treat anthrax patients. But the first press release noting the therapy's potential wasn't distributed until October 24.
At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-thrust into its new national security role-underestimated the value of its public communications. Its recommendation of Cipro-mentioned often and mostly by brand name-as the first-line treatment against anthrax resounded in the press instantly. "CDC was saying there were other antibiotics besides Cipro all along," claims an HHS spokesperson. But the agency put such little emphasis on other treatment options that the media virtually ignored them.
FDA sources say CDC recommended Cipro because animal testing during the Gulf War demonstrated that it was the most effective remedy against anthrax bacteria. But penicillin and doxycycline were also tested in those trials and judged effective, a finding backed by years of doctors' experiences in treating agriculturally contracted anthrax. Apparently, CDC recommended Cipro as a precautionary measure to protect against strains bioengineered to be resistant to older antibiotics, which Cold War era Soviet scientists showed were possible to manufacture.
"CDC didn't know if the first cases of anthrax would be susceptible to doxycycline or penicillin, so they started patients on Cipro," says Rob Kloppenburg, Bayer director of communications. He says that patients were switched to doxycycline or penicillin only when CDC felt confident that they could be successfully treated with those therapies.