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Why U.S. purchase of radiation sickness drug Nplate is no cause for alarm

The Department of Health and Human Services has ordered a $290 million supply of a medication used for injuries caused by radiation.
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Amid concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear threats came a bit of startling news: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it spent $290 million on a drug to treat radiation sickness.

The department said in a statement that the purchase of the drug, called Nplate, is part of its “long-standing, ongoing efforts by the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response to better prepare the U.S. for the potential health impacts of a wide range of threats to national security.”

In other words, despite President Joe Biden's warning that the risk of nuclear “Armageddon” is the highest it has been since the Cuban missile crisis, the purchase of the drug for radiation sickness is coincidental, according to the HHS.

Nplate, manufactured by U.S. drugmaker Amgen, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2021 to treat injuries caused by acute radiation syndrome, also known as radiation sickness. (It was also approved in 2008 to treat an autoimmune disorder that causes excessive bleeding.)

The HHS didn’t comment on when the decision to order the drug was made or whether it predated the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, but it noted that the department began supporting the development of the drug back in 2019 after earlier involvement from the National Institutes of Health.

Amgen will maintain the supply of the drug, an approach the HHS says lowers costs for taxpayers and allows the drug to be used in the commercial market before it expires.

Chris Meekins, former deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said that he sees no cause for alarm over the purchase.

That’s because, he said, the $290 million purchase of Nplate amounts to about 50,000 courses of the drug, less than the amount he would expect the U.S. to buy if the nation were close to a nuclear war with Russia.

"It isn’t that much product," he said. “I would expect a bigger buy if this were in a response to something going on over there that requires them to both have enough for the U.S. and for giving to partners overseas."

Nplate would not be the ideal medication to use for a widespread nuclear event, he added. 

The drug needs to be used within 24 hours of exposure, he said, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recommends that people stay indoors for at least 24 hours after a nuclear blast.

“We need products that can be used longer,” he said. 

Greg Burel, the former director of the Strategic National Stockpile, agreed, saying that he doesn't think the HHS' purchase of the drug is related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Still, Meekins said that the government’s purchases amid the Russian conflict are worth watching.

“Bottom line, we are watching everything, but this shouldn’t be used as a data point to assume there is a greater threat than people anticipate,” he said.

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