In-depth: MSF takes on Pfizer, GSK

pharmafile | May 3, 2016 | Feature | Manufacturing and Production, Medical Communications, Research and Development, Sales and Marketing Doctors Without Borders, GSK, Pfizer, analysis, medicins sans frontieres, patents, pneumonia 

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) recently stepped up their campaign to make the pneumonia vaccine more available in developing countries.

Appearing to stand in their way are the makers of the vaccine, GSK and Pfizer.

In March, MSF formally opposed Pfizer’s filing of a patent for their pneumonia vaccine in India and, at the end of April, they delivered a petition of almost 400,000 signatories to the headquarters of GSK in London demanding that the Big Pharma pair reduce the price of the vaccine to $5 per child in all developing countries and for humanitarian organisations.

The international network of volunteers has led the calls on the companies to ease the access of the vaccine to those who need it most in the developing world. While prices in different countries are not fully known, the data available shows the disparity in the cost of the vaccine. Hospitals in Tunisia, for example, pay $67 per vaccine while ones in developed, first-world country France pay only $58.

And this price has only risen and risen since the beginning of the 21st century according to director of policy and analysis for the MSF’s campaign, Rohit Sharma. He says: “The price to fully vaccinate a child is 68 times more expensive than it was just over a decade ago, mainly because a handful of big pharmaceutical companies are overcharging donors and developing countries for vaccines that already earn them billions of dollars in wealthy countries.”

When Pfizer filed a patent on its Prevnar 13 pneumonia vaccine in India, it is clear why MSF stepped in. Globally, pneumonia affects approximately 450 million people worldwide a year with children and the elderly most affected. In developing nations, in particular, the burden of the disease is greatest. In India, alone, 43 million people suffer from the disease each year.

One vaccine producer in India, the Serum Institute, already announced plans to provide the vaccine at $6 per child. Even at the discounted rate that Pfizer currently offers at $10, a successful patent filing would leave the price open to further rises. MSF say they chose to fight the patent filing after years of what they refer to as “fruitless negotiations with Pfizer to lower the vaccine’s price for use in projects.”

Leena Menghaney, head of MSF’s patient access campaign in South Asia, says: “India must rebuff demands from pharmaceutical companies, which are backed by diplomatic pressure tactics of the US and other governments, that India change its patentability standards to restrict generic competition.”

This legal approach sits alongside a broader public awareness campaign to gain support for their efforts. The petition delivered to GSK’s headquarters was large enough but the simultaneous stunt outside Pfizer’s global headquarters really drew the attention.

The petition with nearly half a million names from 170 countries was placed in an empty baby cot at the front door of the building and one flower was laid there also for every child lost to pneumonia each day, resulting in 2,500 flowers.

Pfizer spokesperson, Dean Mastrojohn, issued a stock response to the event, saying: “Through our tiered pricing approach, we work closely with governments to help ensure countries have access to our vaccines in a manner that allows for the continued development of new, live-saving vaccines.”

Turning it into such a morally black and white issue, however, may not prove successful for MSF. Their efforts to make vaccines more readily available must surely be commended. When it comes to the pharmaceutical industry, however, morality and ethics usually find themselves in quite murky waters.

When it comes to Pfizer, this was a company willing to engage in a $160 billion complex inversion arrangement to avoid paying tax in the US. MSF turning it into an issue of public outcry certainly has merits, but it must be tempered with appropriate action also.

There is a temptation to analyse the situation and conclude that making it such a public issue may be the last option left for the company. They have indicated that their negotiations with both GSK and Pfizer haven’t led to a positive outcome in terms of a reduction in the price of the vaccine. If they were to lobby governments to take action, they would face opposition in the form of the pharma lobby.

MSF’s strategy places them front and centre with Pfizer and GSK but, if they are to achieve their goal, they will need to ensure the issue remains a topic of discussion. This may become hard when the likes of GSK make announcements like their suspension of patents in developing countries. Good PR like this helps to combat the image of greedy pharma companies guarding their profits.

However, Dr Greg Elder, MSF’s medical coordinator for the campaign, points out: “After combined sales of more than $30 billion for the pneumonia vaccine alone, we think it’s pretty safe to say that GSK and Pfizer could find the money to lower the price, so all developing countries can protect their children from this killer.”

The battle for wider access to the pneumonia vaccine is now being played in a different arena than the negotiating table or political enclaves. One thing is for certain, MSF certainly seems up for the fight.

Sean Murray

Related Content

CDC Advisory Committee recommends Pfizer’s RSV vaccine

Pfizer has announced that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee …

GSK’s Ojjaara approved by FDA for patients with myelofibrosis and anaemia

GSK has announced that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Ojjaara (momelotinib) …

GSK and Save the Children extend partnership for unvaccinated children

GSK and Save the Children have announced that they will be renewing their partnership for …

Latest content