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Sanofi backs out of controversial Zika vaccine project

Published on 04/09/17 at 09:34am

Sanofi’s development of a Zika vaccine, alongside the US’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), has hit the headlines quite a few times since the deal was announced but not due to any breakthrough successes.

The arrangement became widely controversial after Sanofi refused to sign a ‘fair-pricing’ agreement to ensure that the vaccine, if eventually successful, would be affordable to US citizens. In the next stage of the saga, Sanofi released that BARDA had decided to cut funding to the project and it had, as a result, decided to pull the plug on research into the vaccine.

This effectively sees the acrimonious project put on ice unless, as Sanofi noted in its press release, ‘the epidemic re-emerges’, at which point development could be restarted. The promise of the potential vaccine that was developed by government scientists at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center is thought to be high, but the urgency to develop protective against Zika has dropped off since the number of cases have dwindled worldwide.

Sanofi acknowledged as much in its statement: “Given the evolving epidemiology of Zika, which has seen a profound reduction in the number of new Zika cases in the United States and around the world in 2017, as well as the results of the Phase I study, it was necessary to substantially extend our projected vaccine development timelines.  Therefore, we respect BARDA’s decision to re-purpose limited resources to meet their priorities.”

Part of the reason for the collapse of the project then is that there are not as many people in need of the vaccine anymore, limiting any possible profit that Sanofi could have made from the vaccine. It was as good a time as any for the company to back out of a deal that had become toxic from a PR perspective.

$43 million had been promised to Sanofi, through BARDA, to fund research and there was a further $130 million to be received should this lead to late-stage testing. The figures, plus the initial development research, left the US Army and certain political figures believing that the US had earned the right to negotiate the price of any potential vaccine.

Senators and the US Army had then placed increasing pressure on Sanofi to limit the price of the eventual vaccine, which garnered public support and placed the company in an awkward position.

It ended its press release with a defiant note, in regards to the controversy of the initial deal: “we continue to believe that public-private partnerships are the right model to address these public health challenges and should continue to play a major role in response to emerging infectious diseases.”

This means that Sanofi may be back for another government-backed development project but it will have learnt a few stinging lessons from this most recent failed undertaking.

Ben Hargreaves

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