U.S. scientists started working on a vaccine for the Zika virus last year. In March 2016, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research started developing the vaccine, and in September, they announced that Sanofi Pasteur had become their research partner. This announcement has caused concern for many Americans.
Sanofi’s Monopoly on a Zika Vaccine
Sanofi is a Paris-based pharmaceutical company. They were given a $43 million grant for conducting the second phase of trials for the Zika vaccine, which should begin in 2018. If these trials are successful, they’ll receive another $130 million for a third phase of testing.
If Sanofi successfully develops the vaccine, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research will give them an exclusive license to sell the vaccine in the U.S. This has caused worry among many Americans. The Zika virus can cause birth defects if pregnant women are infected, and Sanofi has a history of increasing drug prices in the United States. Aubagio, one of their multiple sclerosis drugs, sells for eight times higher in the U.S. than in the U.K. and France. The company was also sued in 2017 for increasing their cost of insulin. Americans worry that the Zika vaccine will become extremely expensive.
The U.S. government doesn’t have the resources to mass-produce and distribute vaccines, and Sanofi could be a good company to handle this aspect of the vaccine process. They can produce vaccines in large volumes, and they have successfully developed a vaccine for dengue fever, a virus that, like Zika, is spread by mosquitos. However, many are concerned that allowing Sanofi a monopoly over the Zika vaccine will be a catastrophe. The U.S. will not be able to negotiate prices if they give Sanofi an exclusive license.
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Zika Spreading to the U.S.
Zika has not been a big problem in the United States this year. However, some states, like Louisiana, Texas, and Florida, are at a risk of an outbreak. These areas have large mosquito populations and have had outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses in the past.
Dr. Rebekah Gee, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals secretary, fears that budget cuts will make it impossible to provide the Zika vaccines if Sanofi sets a high price. Gee may have to choose between keeping the state’s Medicaid budget and providing vaccines for women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant.
About ten percent of pregnant women who have been infected with Zika give birth to children with brain damage or other health problems. Microcephaly, a condition characterized by a small skull and underdeveloped brain, is more common in babies whose mothers had Zika.
Sanofi’s spokeswoman, Ashleigh Koss, says that the company will consider affordability when it sets the price for the Zika vaccine. The company won’t set prices until they know how many doses they need to produce. However, the United States government could set a price in their contract with Sanofi. Many health advocates advise this to prevent Sanofi from drastically increasing prices.
Many politicians, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, have warned the U.S. government against granting Sanofi a monopoly. Pharmaceutical representatives have responded, saying that the need for a good public image will compel companies to set fair prices.
Sanofi says that they will cap their price increases for most of their products at 5.4 percent this year. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review praised them for the fair pricing of Lemtrada, one of their multiple sclerosis drugs. They won’t set a price for the Zika vaccine until the trials have been completed, but if the U.S. grants them a monopoly, there’s a risk that the price will be too high.
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