It’s a familiar, if tragic, pattern: A medical breakthrough is discovered at public expense, only to be licensed to a private corporation that earns billions of dollars by making it unaffordable for ordinary people.
The latest such giveaway involves a vaccine for the Zika virus, which can cause microcephaly, blindness, deafness, and calcification of the brain in children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. Though the new vaccine is still being tested, it shows great promise. It was developed at the Walter Reed Army Institute for Research, and the Department of the Army funded its development.
Now the Army is planning to grant exclusive rights to this potentially groundbreaking medicine–along with as much as $173 million in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services—to the French pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi Pasteur. Sanofi manufactures a number of vaccines, but it’s also faced repeated allegations of overcharges and fraud. Should the vaccine prove effective, Sanofi would be free to charge whatever it wants for it in the United States. Ultimately, the vaccine could end up being unaffordable for those most vulnerable to Zika, and for cash-strapped states.
Activists and lawmakers have been resisting the giveaway since a nongovernmental organization called Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) first raised the alarm late last year. Its campaign gained new momentum last week when elected officials from Florida, including Senator Bill Nelson and nine members of the House of Representatives, wrote letters of objection to acting Army Secretary Robert Speer. The legislators called for public hearings before any licensing agreement is finalized. “Providing a single drugmaker exclusive control over a desperately needed vaccine could create an environment in which the vaccine is unaffordable to those who need it most,” Nelson wrote. “Given the considerable federal investment and the need for the vaccine, I believe it’s critical that the vaccine be available and accessible to the taxpayers who already invested in the research and development of the vaccine.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote the Army about the Zika vaccine in March, noting that “American consumers could pay twice: Once for the development of this vaccine through their tax dollars and then to the company, which would be allowed to charge any price that it wants for this drug if and when it is approved for marketing.” In an op-ed for The New York Times, Sanders asked President Trump to cancel the “bad deal,” noting that Sanofi’s CEO makes $4.5 million per year. Sanders correctly noted that Americans have given away drug patents before, only to wind up paying exorbitant prices for them.