Tuesday 24 April 2018

Millions at risk if Pfizer is awarded pneumonia vaccine patent, warns Medecins Sans Frontieres

Pneumonia is the biggest cause of death among children under the age of five in India Credit: AP
Pneumonia is the biggest cause of death among children under the age of five in India Credit: AP

Zeba Siddiqui

The charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) has launched a campaign to stop Pfizer from obtaining a patent on a highly effective pneumonia vaccine, a move which could denied most developing nations access to the drug.

The US pharmaceutical giant has applied to an Indian court for a patent on ‘Prevnar 13’ – a powerful pneumonia vaccine – so that it can effectively shut down local firms from producing cheap copies of the drug .

Some of the world's poorest countries and medical charities such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) depend on India's robust pharmaceutical industry to make cheaper forms of drugs and vaccines developed by big Western pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer.

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“To make sure children everywhere can be protected from deadly pneumonia, other companies need to enter the market to supply this vaccine for a much lower price than what Pfizer charges," Manica Balasegaram, executive director of MSF's access campaign, said in a statement on Friday.

Prevnar 13 is the world's biggest-selling vaccine, and Pfizer earned $6 billion from its sales in 2015.

The US pharmaceutical firm made the vaccine available at discounted prices under the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) - an international public-private partnership to improve access to vaccines in the world's poorest countries.

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As of November 2015, 58 countries were eligible to procure the vaccine through GAVI, according to the organisation's website.

MSF says however many other developing countries cannot afford it.

Indian firms are eligible to procure the vaccine under the GAVI alliance but is not allowed to sell it then.

The vaccine costs about $170 per child in India, while the GAVI price is $10 per child.

The Indian firm Serum Institute of India supplies the drug to MSF and other countries in need for $6.

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MSF said it had filed a "pre-grant opposition," a filing through which patents can be opposed in India before they are granted.

The charity is arguing that the process Pfizer has sought a patent on is "too obvious to deserve a patent under Indian law."

The charity said its decision to oppose Pfizer's patent application came after "years of fruitless negotiations with Pfizer to lower the vaccine's price for use in its projects."

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Pfizer spokespersons in New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday, according to Reuters.

Pneumonia kills nearly a million people each year, and is the biggest cause of death among children under the age of five in India.


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