Studies designed to prove whether this new vaccine is safe are still in early stages. But the government is optimistic enough that this week it opened bidding for ultimate production of three times as many doses as initially planned, to stockpile in case of a bioterrorist attack.
"You can't wait until you get all the data in" to make decisions about emergency stockpiles, explained Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, who oversees bioterrorism-related research.
The current anthrax vaccine works well, experts say, but it requires six shots over 18 months plus an annual booster, and it causes side effects.
The 2001 anthrax attacks-by-mail prompted calls for a next-generation vaccine. This candidate, developed by federal scientists, promises to be a highly purified replacement that would cut in half the number of shots — with few side effects.
Two companies, California-based VaxGen Inc. and Britain's Avecia, already have government contracts to produce a certain amount of the experimental vaccine, and test it on people to see if it is safe. First-stage testing is under way.
The government by law must open bidding for the rest of the production to any interested company, but their early involvement makes VaxGen and Avecia frontrunners in consideration of the new contracts.
The amount of doses to be stockpiled is based on an estimate of how much vaccine would be needed in case of a major anthrax attack on a city, and to have enough available to vaccinate emergency-response workers ahead of time if they desire, Fauci said.