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In a move that could set a precedent for poor countries seeking to import cheaper generic drugs to deal with their own health crises, the US government has been urged to relax its patent rules to increase supplies of the anti-anthrax drug Cipro.

With the heightening worries over potential anthrax attacks, the United States is keen to stock up on the antibiotic Cipro. German pharmaceutical company Bayer — holder of the patent on Cipro — claims that it can satisfy this demand.

But it has been suggested that the United States should look to other sources to ensure adequate supplies of the drug. On Tuesday Democrat senator, Charles Schumer, said “the United States could significantly increase its supply of Cipro by purchasing the drug's generic version [ciprofloxacin] directly”.

Such a move would require the US government to ignore patent restrictions and to license other companies to make the drug. One possible manufacturer could be Cipla, an Indian firm that has offered to supply large quantities of the anti-anthrax drug to the US according to the The Times of India. Cipla was involved earlier this year in a dispute over making its generic anti-AIDS drugs available to countries in India.

Although invoking generic drug manufacture is within the scope of patent law — through so-called compulsory licensing — the United States has recently backed pharmaceutical companies in their opposition to similar scenarios in South Africa and Brazil. If the United States was to license generic suppliers to make ciprofloxacin, it could set an international precedent and enable developing countries to import desperately needed AIDS/HIV and other drugs from generic sources.

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