The Trump Administration, led by a president who repeatedly boasts that his business acumen will bring jobs back to American soil, now seems poised to strike a deal that will Make France Great Again. Or, more specifically, enrich the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur by granting an exclusive license to patents for a Zika vaccine.
There’s no question that a vaccine for the mosquito-borne scourge is urgently needed. The virus, which can cause severe birth defects and paralysis, is nothing less than a full-blown global health emergency. Zika has been reported in 84 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and is exploding in Puerto Rico, with 40,000 confirmed cases — and health officials believe that as many as 1 million have been infected, according to NPR. Some 5,000 US cases were reported in 2016.
Fortunately, a glimmer of hope emerged recently in the lab. Scientists at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, collaborating with colleagues in Brazil and at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard, reported promising results in mice that “suggest that the development of a [Zika virus] vaccine for humans is likely to be achievable.”
Yet any resulting vaccine may end up being too expensive for the millions who need it, because the exclusive license that the Army is offering does not build in a requirement for affordable pricing. In an era of soaring prescription drug costs, patient advocates are skeptical of a deal that would allow a private company to rake in profits for shareholders from an invention funded by grants that come from taxpayer dollars. As Ed Silverman reported in STAT, the government gave Sanofi a $43 million grant, and another $130 million may follow as part of the Army’s agreement to codevelop a vaccine.
Slamming the pharmaceutical industry for predatory practices, Senator Bernie Sanders urged President Trump to negotiate a better deal with Sanofi to guarantee that the company won’t “gouge American consumers, Medicare and Medicaid or our military when it sells the vaccine.”
To be sure, government-funded scientists at universities and nonprofits often need a partner in private industry to supply the R&D firepower necessary to finally get a drug into the hands of patients. And running human clinical trials is expensive. But Trump promised more. In March, after meeting with congressional Democrats to discuss a House bill on drug prices, Trump tweeted: “I am working on a new system where there will be competition in the Drug Industry. Pricing for the American people will come way down!”
The administration could require the Army to add a single sentence in its licensing agreement with Sanofi to require keeping costs down — especially in developing nations. Provisions could also be made to require Sanofi to disclose data on sales. Until that happens, Trump’s promises risk seeming like so much fake news.