Wilson Dizard / Al Jazeera

MSF protests price of Pfizer pneumonia vaccine

Medical charity calls on drug maker to lower price of vaccine in poor countries

NEW YORK — Children in poor countries are going without pneumonia vaccine because of the high price of the shots, manufactured by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, members of humanitarian group Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) said at a rally Thursday outside Pfizer’s headquarters in Manhattan.

About 1 million children die each year worldwide because of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it more deadly than malaria or tuberculosis.

“Children are especially vulnerable to this infectious disease,” said Veronica Ades, a physician with MSF who attended the rally. “Anybody who cares about children should know it is important to prevent this extremely deadly illness.”

To bring attention to the issue, about two dozen MSF members and supporters brought clear cases of $17 million in fake $100 bills to the building and tried to deliver it to CEO Ian Read. MSF says Pfizer generates $17 million daily from pneumonia vaccine sales. MSF spokeswoman Kate Elder urged the company to reduce the price of the vaccine to $5 dollars for a full course of treatment, estimating that even its lowest price, offered to poor countries, is about $10 for a full course.

Pfizer spokeswoman Sally Beatty thanked the demonstrators for raising awareness of healthcare for children and said the company works with charities to provide it at a reduced price.

According to the CDC, Pfizer's pediatric pneumonia vaccine treatment, Prevnar 13, costs $159 per dose at full price, or more than $450 per child for a full course of treatment. 

"Prices vary by market depending on the healthcare system and health needs of local populations," Beatty said in an email to Al Jazeera. She did not provide a global average price.

In a previous statement sent in response to the MSF protest, Pfizer said that it sells the pneumonia vaccine to the world's poorest for a tenth of what it does to some developed nations.

MSF says it's still too expensive. Some countries with national health systems that bargain for medicine with drug makers can't afford to purchase the vaccine for their citizens, Elder said.

MSF members gather and stack $17 million in fake bills in a protest over the price of pneumonia medication sold by Pfizer. (Wilson Dizard / Al Jazeera)

Elder said that the pricing of the drug is possible because only Pfizer and United Kingdom-based Glaxo Smith Klein (GSK) produce the vaccine. Pneumococcal vaccines were introduced in 2000, and MSF said the cost of the vaccine is making it harder to immunize children.

“It costs 68x more to fully immunize a child now than it did in 2001, and the expensive pneumonia vaccine accounts for much of that increase,” the group states on its website. Since its introduction, both GSK and Pfizer have made $28 billion from the vaccine, MSF said. 

Pfizer responded to the demonstration with a statement highlighting its participation in a worldwide charity program called Gavi: The Vaccine Alliance, which works with UNICEF to distribute billions of dollars for vaccines provided by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as funds from dozens of other countries and charities.

“Through our partnership with Gavi and UNICEF, over 20 million babies in 44 countries annually are protected against pneumococcal disease,” Beatty said in a statement. “At a more than 90 percent reduction to the price paid by some industrialized nations, our current Gavi price is $3.30 a dose.”

Elder said that this statistic is misleading, since a full course of treatment includes three shots, making the price closer to $10. Aid agencies have trouble affording that price in bulk, she said.

Geneva-based Gavi was not available for comment. Pfizer did not respond to requests for comment on its relationship to Gavi funding. 

And while Gavi provides treatment in some of the poorest countries in the world, like Afghanistan and Haiti, others fall through the cracks, like Syria and Libya, Elder said. Donations are welcome, but they don’t provide reliable relief for people struggling to afford immunizations for their children, she added.

“What we are trying to highlight here is that many countries are left out of that mechanism. Countries like Libya, Jordan and Lebanon aren’t poor enough to qualify for that Gavi support,” she said. “Many of them have not introduced the vaccine because they can’t afford it.”

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