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.
"Bayer took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal because it had been questioned in the press if they could produce enough
Cipro," says Clay O'Dell, Generic Pharmaceutical Association spokesperson. "Generic companies' communications went to government
officials, Health and Human Services (HHS), and the department of defense-not a splashy ad. They didn't need to run ads to
tell people about their products because those drugs are already on the market, made by not one but several companies. People
already know they can get doxycycline or penicillin, and they have been able to for 20 years." O'Dell says consumerism is
also a factor in Cipro's media coverage, because reporters and the public are conditioned to remember and prefer brand name
drugs to generics.
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
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.