Doctors Without Borders Refused A Million Free Vaccines—But Why?

They certainly didn't make this decision lightly.

Credit: Anna Surinyach

Credit: Anna Surinyach

In a controversial and risky move, the organization Doctors Without Borders (DWB) officially refused a donation of one million pneumonia vaccines to make a point about the extremely high cost of vaccines.

The humanitarian organization has been protesting the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in an effort to get them to lower the price of their pneumonia vaccine for some time. This is the latest in a series of moves against the corporation, but it’s certainly the most severe.

Pneumonia is a leading cause of death among children worldwide, as almost one million children died of the disease in 2015 and it accounts for 15 percent of all deaths in children under the age of 5. Since DWB refused the vaccine, approximately one million people will not receive the shot and their chances of survival lessen.

Of course, the organization is not without their reasons in regards to boycotting Pfizer and their handouts. It’s Pfizer that offered to give the vaccines to the organization, and it was their way of quieting the group because they have been demanding the price be lowered for so long. Considering the company made $6.245 billion in revenue from vaccines alone last year, the donation was likely inconsequential.

The drug company has multiple patents the vaccine and the process used to make it, which makes it difficult for competitors to produce a vaccine just as effective, but less costly. Since the drug was introduced in 2009, DWB has been trying to find a more cost-efficient way to buy the vaccine but has lacked the resources to purchase it.

While accepting the vaccines would have helped current patients being treated by DWB, it would serve to “undermine long-term efforts” to increase access to the drug for people in developing nations. Jason Cone, executive director of DWB, explained on Medium,

“Donations are often used as a way to make others ‘pay up.’ By giving the pneumonia vaccine away for free, pharmaceutical corporations can use this as justification for why prices remain high for others, including other humanitarian organizations and developing countries that also can’t afford the vaccine.”


Credit: Samantha Maurin

Cone emphasizes that there is no such thing as “free” vaccines. On top of the restrictions usually given for when/who/where the vaccines can be given, there are also larger implications. He also said,

“[Donations] remove incentives for new manufacturers to enter a market when it’s absorbed through a donation arrangement. We need competition from new companies to bring down prices overall — something we don’t have currently for the pneumonia vaccine.”

Though it was an extremely tough decision to make, DWB has their eyes on bigger, long-term goals and they know they made the right decision for the future well-being of billions of people in the world rather than just one million.

In contrast, one competitor that has recently agreed to lower its price for humanitarian organizations is GSK; their new price would be $3.05 per dose or $9.15 per child for all three doses needed for full vaccination. Pfizer has not made any similar concessions and continues to stand by their price. DWB and organizations worldwide are asking that they lower the pneumonia vaccine to $5 per child to make a meaningful difference for children around the globe.

What are your thoughts on Doctors Without Borders’ decision? Please share, like, and comment on this article!

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