- Mike Segar/Reuters
As it turns out, giving away medicine for free won’t be the way to end drug pricing fury.
The US director of Medecins Sans Frontieres, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian group focused on supplying medical care in emergency situations around the world, penned a blog post Monday detailing the organization’s reasoning for not accepting free pneumonia vaccines from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. (A spokeswoman for Pfizer said it offered to donate 1 million vaccine doses.)
In theory, a donation seems as though it would make sense: Give vaccines away for free, and then they can be used by people who might not otherwise be able to afford them. But MSF argues it’d be better if the organization could just pay for the drug at a discounted rate than deal with the complications and restrictions that come with donations.
“Free is not always better. Donations often involve numerous conditions and strings attached, including restrictions on which patient populations and what geographic areas are allowed to receive the benefits,” Jason Cone, executive director of MSF in the US, wrote in the post. “This process can delay starting vaccination campaigns, which would be an untenable situation in emergency settings, or grossly limit who you’re able to reach with the vaccine.”
Pfizer, meanwhile, stood by its decision to use donations to increase access to vaccines.
“Pfizer strongly disagrees with MSF’s stated policy and believes product donations play a crucial role in addressing humanitarian crises around the world,” the company said in an emailed statement regarding the blog post.
Cone also argued in his post that donations are not a sustainable solution since they could be cut off or discontinued at any time.
Pneumonia – which can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus – killed 920,000 children worldwide in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Pneumonia vaccines protect against the bacteria Streptococcal pneumoniae.
MSF is concerned with two pneumonia vaccines out there: one made by GlaxoSmithKline, the other by Pfizer.
For the past two years, Pfizer and GSK have donated the vaccines to MSF, which Cone noted was not part of any long-term arrangement. MSF has been pushing both companies to supply the vaccine for $5 a child, and GSK agreed in September to provide it for around $9 a child.
A spokeswoman for Pfizer told Business Insider that the company had offered MSF 1 million vaccine doses, including 100,000 doses right away, which Pfizer said would “build on the significant donation previously provided to MSF.”
When asked if the donations would be the only way Pfizer would provide doses (as opposed to cutting the price), the company said, “We are actively exploring a number of new options to enable greater access to our [pneumonia] vaccine, Prevenar 13 (Prevnar 13 in the United States), to aid NGOs facing humanitarian emergency settings.”
Other organizations that provide vaccines to developing countries, such as the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, have policies in place about drug donations. GAVI, for instance, resorts to donations only “under exceptional circumstances.”
“Donations of medical products, such as vaccines and drugs, may appear to be good ‘quick fixes,’ but they are not the answer to increasingly high vaccine prices charged by pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and GSK,” Cone wrote.
This post was updated to clarify Pfizer’s response.