Novartis won't give free swine flu vaccines

Posted June 15, 2009

— With swine flu now an official pandemic, the race is on among drugmakers to produce a vaccine.

However, Novartis (NYSE: NVS) is saying no to a World Health Organization request for free vaccines.

GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), which operates its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park, has already said it would give away 50 million doses of vaccine.

Novartis' chief executive told the Financial Times that developing nations or donor nations should cover costs.

Said Daniel Vasella: “If you want to make production sustainable, you have to create financial incentives.”

GSK said Thursday after the World Health Organization declared a global flu epidemic that it would be ready within weeks to begin large-scale vaccine production.

Sanofi-Aventis also said it had started working on its own version.

On Friday, Novartis announced it had created an experimental vaccine that has not been tested in people. Novartis’ vaccine was made via a cell-based technology that may prove faster than the traditional way of making vaccines, which relies on chicken eggs.

Novartis is building a new vaccine production plant in Holly Springs, N.C.

Many rich countries like Britain, Canada and France signed contracts with pharmaceuticals long ago, guaranteeing them access to pandemic vaccine. WHO and others estimate that about 2.4 billion doses of pandemic vaccine could be available in about a year.

The likely scramble for vaccines will leave many people in poorer countries empty-handed.

So far, swine flu has been mostly detected in developed countries like the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.

“We do not know how this virus will behave under conditions typically found in the developing world,” WHO chief Dr. Margaret Chan said Thursday. She said the agency expects to see a “bleaker” picture as the virus makes its way to Africa and Asia.

WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said officials were concerned people in poorer countries and those fighting other health problems like malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition and pneumonia might be more susceptible to swine flu.

On Friday, WHO said that 74 countries had reported nearly 30,000 cases including 145 deaths. But so far, the virus appears to be mild. Most people don’t need medical treatment to get better.

But the virus might have a more devastating effect in people with underlying health problems. About half of the people who have died from swine flu have had complications like asthma, diabetes, and obesity.

“Any population that has health challenges is potentially going to be at higher risk with H1N1 (swine flu),” Hartl said.

In May, officials led by Chan and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked vaccine makers to save a portion of their production for poor countries. Chan was aiming to get 10 percent of the global pandemic vaccine supply reserved for poor nations.

Some companies have agreed to help. GlaxoSmithKline PLC offered to donate 50 million doses of pandemic vaccine to WHO for distribution to developing countries.

During the bird flu crisis, Sanofi-Aventis promised WHO about 60 million doses based on the H5N1 strain. WHO is now talking with Sanofi to switch some or all of those vaccines over to swine flu doses.

Because more than 95 percent of flu vaccines are still made in eggs, experts say the Novartis announcement is unlikely to significantly boost the world’s pandemic vaccine supply.

But the news pushed up Novartis shares by 4.4 percent to close at 45 Swiss francs ($41.84) on the Zurich exchange Friday.

WHO and nongovernment organizations like Oxfam are continuing to ask drugmakers to make some of their pandemic vaccines available for poorer countries at a cheaper price, as well as asking donor countries and organizations to pay for the doses.

But in a pandemic situation, WHO’s attempts to secure vaccine for the poor and even the contracts countries have signed with drugmakers may make little difference to who actually gets the vaccine, some experts say.

In previous pandemics, vaccines have never left the country where they are made before all of that country’s own needs have been met.

“WHO can say whatever it wishes, but pharmaceutical companies will take their marching orders from the politicians,” said David Fedson, a vaccines expert and former professor of medicine at the University of Virginia.

“Do you think any doses of vaccine made in France, Germany, the Czech Republic or anywhere will be allowed out to go to other countries just because there’s a contract?” Fedson said.

Ultimately, Fedson said health officials and politicians will have to deal with a limited amount of vaccine for the billions worldwide who want it. “There’s a lot of dirtiness in vaccine politics,” he said. “We may try our best, but we won’t succeed in doing what’s necessary.”


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  • wattsun Jun 15, 2009

    I would be leery of any vaccines period.

    Recently, Baxter just "accidently" shipped out thousands of doses of "LIVE" Avian Flu virus in a vaccine in Europe that was luckily caught by a third party tester that when injected in the test ferrets killed all of them.

  • ifuaintscared Jun 15, 2009

    Why stop at free? Those evil drug companies ought to be *paying* to have the vaccines taken off their hands!

  • didisaythat Jun 15, 2009

    I think the point is the drug companies make plenty of money that if a Pandemic (which I do not think the Swine Flu is) exists it should be stopped before trying to make a profit. I agree with most that say you can not take the incentive away. My point is if it is an emergency you should get the product out to stop it and then recoupe from countries.

  • Daisygirlforever Jun 15, 2009

    I agree with rocket. These companies have employees to pay too....educated employees who spend their time trying to come up with drugs that benefit everyone. Yes, it would be gratuitous for Novartis to give away some to US Citizens or maybe even sell them at a discount a discount, but take away the incentive for a company to find these drugs then we all lose out.

  • For-Better-Or-Worse Jun 15, 2009


  • C6-YA Jun 15, 2009

    Oh I'm sure that Obama will tell Congress to make Novartis give it up. I makes me sick!

  • livinitup7 Jun 15, 2009

    What's messed up is that they are building a new facility in Holly Springs that is almost exclusively government funded but they won't shell out the money for vacines.

  • rocket Jun 15, 2009

    You are going to boycott them because they won't give away their product for free? That's kinda harsh, don't ya think? If you held all companies to the same standard, you'd pretty much be boycotting everyone. Hats off to GSK for volunteering free vaccines but it should not be a requirement. If these companies cannot make money from their efforts, where is the incentive to spend time and money doing the research and development required to develop the vaccine in the first place?

  • Harrison Bergeron Jun 15, 2009

    First of all, Europe isn't a country.

    Second, boo hoo, those evil capitalists! How dare they try to make money on their products. They should give away everything to anyone who wants it.

  • FoxtrotUniformCharlieKiloakaCALM Jun 15, 2009

    "Like it or not, charity begins at home. Government's first obligation is to its own people.

    This comment should pretty much end all debate. It's the truth. "IF" this thing gets worse, you will all be saying "waaaah waaaah we gave X doses to this country and now we have a shortage waah"

    Go ahead and boycott them, that's laughable.