Drug prices left off the agenda at African vaccine meeting

Children at the registration for the vaccination campaign against the meningitis at the School for Midwives in El Daein, East Darfur. (Albert González Farran/UNAMID)

Doctors Without Borders is alarmed that the high price of vaccines is not on the agenda for the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa. It is on the sidelines, despite being an issue that affects governments’ abilities to increase vaccine access and protect citizens.

“After governments made clear they want solutions to sky-high vaccine prices, we were expecting the issue to feature prominently at this conference,” said Kate Elder, vaccines policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders’s (MSF) Access Campaign, in a statement. “We hear that governments – who are already strapped with multiple challenges – are instead being asked to put more resources into buying expensive vaccines, but without anyone telling the pharmaceutical giants to drop their prices. Both better resourcing but also, critically, lower prices are needed.”

The medical aid group says that the prices of vaccines directly affects its ability to provide care in developing countries. It says that pharmaceutical companies are profiting at the expense of people’s lives. Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), for example, have made more than $30 billion in sales from their pneumonia vaccines. Many of the 1 million child deaths due to pneumonia each year are preventable, and vaccines play a significant role.

Doctors Without Borders wants the companies to drop the price of the three-dose pneumonia vaccine regimen to $5 per child. Staff protested outside Pfizer’s headquarters in Manhattan in November to demand the price reduction. Pfizer’s drug, Prevnar 13, costs more than $450 per child for the full treatment. The company does work to reduce prices in developing counties, but they go as low as $10, which is not cheap enough for Doctors Without Borders.

(MSF)

(Doctors Without Borders)

“As doctors who have watched far too many children die of pneumonia, we’re not going to back down until we know that all countries can afford the vaccine and that it will be available,” said Myriam Henkens, international medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, in a statement. “Today we want to see governments’ concerns heard and steps taken to push pharmaceutical companies to drop the price of the pneumonia and other life-saving vaccines.”

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Global pneumonia vaccination rates reached 84 percent in 2013. Doctors Without Borders says that the vaccine rates stagnated in some of the countries that need it most and blames the lack of progress partly on the cost of the vaccines. The cost of vaccines for pneumonia, diarrhea and HPV have increased 68 times between 2001 and 2014, according to a Doctors Without Borders report from late 2015.

International bodies exist to help deal with the price problem. Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, works with the governments and the private sector to help countries access vaccines at cheaper prices. One concern is that countries that are not poor enough or graduate out of Gavi are left on their own to negotiate prices, putting coverage rates in jeopardy.

“As one of the main contributors to Gavi, the U.S. government could encourage the Alliance to negotiate better deals with Pfizer and GSK,” said a Doctors Without Borders spokesman in an email to Humanosphere. “From 2001-2014, the U.S. has given Gavi $1.2 billion in direct funding and has pledged $1 billion for 2015-2018. This money can go much further if the vaccines, like Pfizer’s pneumonia vaccine, are cheaper.”

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The 193 governments that met at the World Health Assembly in May 2015 passed a resolution calling for more transparency and affordable vaccines. The unanimous support was viewed as a positive development towards increasing vaccine access in poor countries. The fact that the issue is not on the table at the African government meeting is a worrisome development to Doctors Without Borders.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.