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Pricey Vaccines Hurt Poor Countries, Doctors Group Says

Image: Pakistani polio vaccination worker Sher Khan

Pakistani polio vaccination worker Sher Khan (L) administers polio vaccine to a child. MSF says some companies are charging too much for vaccines. FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP - Getty Images

Some vaccine makers are charging too much for life-saving immunizations sold in poor countries, Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday.

The group, which provides free medical care around the world, said some of the biggest vaccine makers are overcharging non-profits that distribute vaccines. And those prices are headed steadily up, making it ever harder to provide them, the group added.

“The price to fully vaccinate a child is 68 times more expensive than it was just over a decade ago, mainly because a handful of big pharmaceutical companies are overcharging donors and developing countries for vaccines that already earn them billions of dollars in wealthy countries,” said Rohit Malpani of the group’s Access Campaign.

The group, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF, acknowledges that the companies are offering the vaccines at a discount compared to the price in the United States. It’s just not nearly enough of a discount, Malpani said in a statement.

“The price to fully vaccinate a child is 68 times more expensive than it was just over a decade ago."

That’s especially true of new vaccines that protect against pneumonia-causing bacteria, made by GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, MSF said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 476,000 children under the age of 5 died in 2008 from infections that can be prevented by pneumococcal vaccines.

“We think it’s time for GSK and Pfizer to do their part to make vaccines more affordable for countries in the long term, because the discounts the companies are offering today are just not good enough,” Malpani said.

“MSF is one of several non-governmental organizations that vaccinate children and struggle to access affordable vaccines for their programs; high prices limit the use of new vaccines such as PCV (pneumococcal), HPV (which protects against several cancers) or rotavirus, for example, by reducing the number of children that it is possible to target for immunization,” the report reads.

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The vaccine group Gavi also provides low-cost vaccines in the developing world and tries to negotiate steep discounts for them.

“Donors will be asked to put an additional $7.5 billion dollars on the table to pay for vaccines in poor countries for the next five years, with over one third of that going to pay for one vaccine alone, the high-priced pneumococcal vaccine; just think of how much further taxpayer money could go to vaccinate more children if vaccines were cheaper,” Malpani added.

The MSF report finds that Morocco pays $63.70 for Pfizer’s pneumococcal vaccine and Tunisia pays $67.30 for it, while the French government has negotiated the price down to $58.40.

It's a common practice for drug and vaccine makers to charge much more for their products in rich countries such as the United States and to offer them at steep discounts in poorer countries.

But Glaxo says its pneumococcal vaccine is new and that it cost a lot of money to develop. “Of all of our vaccines we manufacture globally, about 80 percent of the total supply goes to developing countries and we offer that 80 percent at significant discounts,” spokeswoman Anna Padula said.

“To discount it further would threaten our ability to supply it to these countries in the long-term."

She said Gavi and UNICEF get vaccines for as little as one-tenth what developed countries are paying.

“Many of our available vaccines are advanced and complex and require significant upfront capital investment to make and supply. Our pneumococcal vaccine is one of the most complex we’ve ever manufactured, essentially combining 10 vaccines in one. For Gavi-eligible countries, we are providing this vaccine at a deeply discounted price. At this level, we are able to just cover our cost,” Padula added.

“To discount it further would threaten our ability to supply it to these countries in the long-term. Nevertheless, we continue to look at ways to reduce production costs and any savings we make we would pass on to Gavi.”

The World Health Organization says immunization prevents 2 to 3 million deaths every year. “But an estimated 21.8 million infants worldwide are still missing out on basic vaccines,” WHO says.