A vaccine for Zika virus is in the works with the potential to halt the devastating disease that’s spread to more than 5,000 people and 1,600 pregnant women in the United States alone. But before the drug is even available, a political debate is heating up – not over the drug’s development and accessibility, but over speculation about its future price tag.
Is the outrage justified? Or will politicizing the vaccine’s development ultimately hurt the women and infants most vulnerable to Zika?
Politics vs. Public Health
The public firestorm began with a March 10 New York Times op-ed by Senator Bernie Sander (I-VT). An outspoken critic of prescription drug prices, Sen. Sanders bemoans the money spent by the United States government on research and Zika prevention, as well as funding for vaccine development. He predicts an “astronomical price” for the final vaccine.
In reality, complaints about pricing remain speculative at this point. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is still considering licensing arrangements for a potential vaccine. It’s expected to make a final decision later this year. And as The Washington Post explains, “It could take years more before [an effective Zika vaccine] is commercially available.”
Nevertheless, pharmaceutical manufacturer Sanofi, the vaccine license candidate targeted by Sen. Sanders, strove to set the record straight in a letter to The New York Times’ editor. Research & development chief, Elias Zerhouni, reminds Sen. Sanders of the massive cost of developing a vaccine, particularly for a new and “poorly understood epidemic” such as Zika. The former head of the National Institutes of Health, Zerhouni also points to the company’s history of cooperating with governments to produce “lifesaving vaccines at reasonable prices.”
The Race for a Vaccine
Efforts to cast Zika vaccine development as another battle in the war on drug pricing marks a sour note in an otherwise collaborative public health effort. A January Washington Post article explained that, “At least six vaccine candidates are in the development pipeline in the United States, with drug companies and government institutions collaborating to accelerate the process.” Widespread concern about the disease has also helped with enrolling clinical trials – often a time-consuming and unfruitful stage of drug development.
Will the perfect storm of public support, scientific ingenuity and government funding continue to propel vaccine development? Public health officials and providers hope so. As National Coalition for Infant Health Medical Director Mitchell Goldstein, MD, explained, “The birth defects caused by the Zika virus have a life-long, even generational, impact.”
Pregnant women who contract the virus can experience lesions of the central nervous system, abnormal volume of amniotic fluid and even third-trimester fetal death. Zika is also linked to microcephaly, a birth defect where infants’ heads and brains are disproportionately small, suggesting improper development. Zika virus is carried by mosquitos.