Thanks but no thanks: Why MSF is rejecting donated vaccines from Pfizer

A vaccine vial and syringe. Photo by: NIAID / CC BY

Medecins Sans Frontieres announced Tuesday it will reject an offer of free pneumonia vaccine from pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc, after the company declined to offer a more “sustainable and long-term” solution for acquiring the drug through discounted pricing, MSF officials told Devex.

“Until now, both Pfizer and [GlaxoSmithKline PLC] have said they would reduce the price, but have instead offered us donations,” said Judit Rius, U.S. manager and legal policy adviser for MSF's Access Campaign.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, typically negotiates discounts directly with pharmaceutical companies for vaccines purchased by governments and organizations working in low-income countries. But middle- and upper-income countries don’t qualify for the discounts, and in some cases governments and organizations pay 30 to 50 times the discounted price, despite coping with protracted humanitarian crises, such as caring for large numbers of refugees in Greece, for example.

“The best way to provide medicines and access to diagnostics is through the normal supply chain mechanisms, that’s what we normally do,” Ruis told Devex in a phone interview. “These are the policies that global health organizations like the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Gavi recommend — not to accept in-kind donations from pharmaceutical companies but to negotiate prices.”

In September, GlaxoSmithKline announced it would discount the price for its vaccine for pneumococcal conjugate, currently the number one killer worldwide of children under 5. Pfizer, the only other producer of the vaccine, has not followed suit. MSF yesterday rejected the offer from Pfizer to donate a limited amount of the vaccine, hoping to spur Pfizer to join GSK in a more sustainable arrangement.

“Pfizer has yet to agree to talk to us about a price,” Rius said. “That’s why we’ve decided, after very difficult internal consultation as you can imagine, to say no to the donation in order to continue pursuing what we think is a more long-term strategy by becoming Pfizer customers,” she said.

Ruiz explained that while MSF welcomed the decision from GSK to negotiate a price, Pfizer’s reluctance exemplifies one of the greatest barriers to vaccination globally: unaffordability.

“These vaccines are very unaffordable for many countries, not just low-income countries, and [Pfizer doesn’t] want to lower the price for MSF because that would mean a precedent that could then be used for other countries and purchasers,” she said.

“We’re asking for a price quote, basically. Very simply, we’re just asking for a price quote to be able to purchase the vaccine and use it.”

Asked why Pfizer has yet to offer another, longer-term option for procuring the vaccine in humanitarian contexts, a spokesperson told Devex that the company is exploring other options.

“Pfizer works closely with governments and NGOs around the world to help provide countries with access to our vaccines and supports humanitarian emergency situations through a three-part approach, including product donations, cash grants and additional access solutions,” the spokesperson said in an email to Devex.

“We are engaged in discussions with our partners on potential new approaches to ensure as many people as possible have access to lifesaving vaccines,” the spokesperson said.

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.