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Contract delay hurts Lansing vaccine firm

Lansing State Journal

WASHINGTON -- A Lansing-based vaccine manufacturer could be out of business soon if the federal government fails to follow through with a commitment to buy 5 million doses of its anthrax vaccine, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers said last week.

For a year, Rogers said, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have been telling him a contract with BioPort Corp. is imminent. As of Friday, no contract had been signed.

Last year, the department bought 5 million doses of the vaccine at a cost of $122 million for the nation's stockpile of medicines, called Project BioShield, that would be used to protect Americans from a terrorist attack.

The 10 million doses are supposed to act as a bridge until a new type of anthrax vaccine is developed by a competitor, VaxGen of Brisbane, Calif. That company has an $877.5-million contract with HHS to deliver 75 million doses of its vaccine to the stockpile starting this year. VaxGen is six months to a year behind schedule and having problems getting its vaccine to work properly.

Rogers is concerned that BioPort, the nation's only anthrax vaccine manufacturer licensed by the Food and Drug Administration, might be forced to close if the contract doesn't come through soon. The company employs 325 people at its Lansing plant and another 125 at a research facility in Maryland.

BioPort President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Kramer declined to say whether his company is considering laying off employees. In October, the firm let 38 workers go. BioPort is also developing vaccines for botulism and typhoid fever.

"If (BioPort) goes away, that's it. We have no FDA-approved company in the U.S.," Rogers said.

"We are right now very much dependent upon a commitment by the federal government, both the Department of Defense and Health and Human Services, for procurement of the product," Kramer said.

Both BioPort and VaxGen have had financial and production problems before.

It took BioPort three years to get an FDA license after it bought its Lansing plant from the State of Michigan in 1998 and renovated it. The military invested $125 million in the plant to help get it running.

VaxGen was delisted by Nasdaq in 2004 and is redoing some of its annual financial statements.

Rogers is calling on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the BioShield stockpile, to investigate the way HHS is handling the anthrax vaccine contracts.