MSF Challenges Pfizer's Monopoly on Lifesaving Pneumonia Vaccine in South Korea

GREECE 2016 © Rocco Rorandelli/TerraProject

Doctors Without Borders urges Pfizer to drop unmerited patents that hinder access to lifesaving childhood vaccine worldwide

NEW YORK/SEOUL, FEBRUARY 6, 2018—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has filed a legal petition at the Supreme Court of South Korea requesting that the court review Pfizer’s patent to for its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV). On November 29, 2017, the Patent Court of Korea upheld the patent granted to Pfizer for its PCV13 product, marketed as Prevnar13. Unmerited patents like this are a barrier for people, governments, and treatment providers, such as MSF, trying to protect children against pneumonia—a disease that kills almost one million kids every year, or 2,500 per day.

This action before the Supreme Court of South Korea is the latest in a global fight to overturn Pfizer’s unmerited patents on PCV13 and increase competition worldwide by allowing manufacturers to develop and market more affordable PCV13. The company has fought to maintain its monopoly on this particular product by claiming they should get a patent for the method of conjugating 13 serotypes of streptococcus pneumonia into a single carrier. However, Pfizer's method does not involve an inventive step, and the technology used to combine the serotypes is not new.

Overturning this unmerited patent would pave the way to protecting more children from this deadly disease. MSF began challenging Pfizer’s unmerited patent in South Korea last year after the same patent was revoked by the European Patent Office (EPO), which judged it to be non-inventive. Pfizer’s patent is also being legally challenged in India by MSF and other groups.

“Doctors and nurses at MSF see each and every day the effects of high-priced pneumonia vaccines and the needless deaths that result from excessive profits taking precedent over public health,” said MSF-Korea General Director Thierry Coppens. “South Korea is well-positioned to produce affordable and quality pneumonia vaccine that could save the lives of vulnerable children all over the world, however Pfizer’s patent and global monopoly stands in the way of other vaccine developers that want to make and sell more affordable vaccines.”

High-priced pneumonia vaccines and the lack of global competition are significant reasons why it is now 68 times more expensive to vaccinate a child with the full package of WHO-recommended vaccines than in 2001. In fact, high prices charged by the only two companies that produce the vaccine are largely why approximately one-third of countries have not been able to introduce the pneumonia vaccine in their standard vaccination package and protect their children from a deadly but preventable disease. Right now, many countries rely on Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to support vaccinating their children. More than twenty of those countries—and millions of children—are scheduled to lose their eligibility for this funding in the next several years.

Allowing multiple manufacturers to make and sell pneumonia vaccines would make it possible for more countries and treatment providers like MSF to secure affordable vaccines.

“In our work, we see many children with life-threatening respiratory infections; many deaths could be prevented if more kids were vaccinated with PCV,” said Dr. Anas Shorman, a pediatrician working for MSF in Jordan. “More than 50 countries have spoken out against high vaccine prices, and children in countries like Indonesia, Jordan, and Tunisia simply can’t wait any longer to get access to the lifesaving pneumonia vaccine.”

In India—known as the “pharmacy of the developing world”—MSF is challenging a patent on the same vaccine (the court hearing is also scheduled for this week). The current patent blocks Indian producers from marketing a more affordable PCV13 until 2026.

The amicus brief filed by MSF can be accessed here (in Korean).