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The U.S. Army is planning to grant an exclusive license to the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur to manufacture and sell a Zika virus vaccine that the U.S. Army developed. And that has some people worried. NPR's Alison Kodjak reports that some state and federal officials want Sanofi to guarantee the vaccine will be available at a reasonable price.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Louisiana Health Secretary Rebekah Gee is worried about Zika, but she's almost equally worried about the Zika vaccine developed by the U.S. Army.
REBEKAH GEE: You know, God forbid we have a Zika outbreak. We're in the middle of a fiscal crisis. We're already cutting services to people. We're already potentially cutting our funding to fight the Zika virus.
KODJAK: Gee says if there were an outbreak, Louisiana would want to vaccinate everyone of childbearing age. And more than half a million of those people in the state are on Medicaid, which means the state would foot the bill. There's no Zika vaccine available right now, but the Army has developed one, and it says it's going to grant Sanofi the rights to sell it. Gee worries that the company will set the price too high.
GEE: And we'd be then in the situation that we'd have to decide between funding K through 12 education and the Zika vaccine. And that just shouldn't happen when the U.S. government and the taxpayers of this nation paid to develop this drug.
KODJAK: Jamie Love, director of the public interest group Knowledge Ecology International, has asked the Army for a guarantee that Sanofi will charge the same for the vaccine in the U.S. as it does in other wealthy countries, like its home country France.
JAMIE LOVE: The U.S. government developed the vaccine in-house. And the inventors of the vaccine are all federal employees, are all employees of the Army.
KODJAK: It's not unusual for the government to give private companies license to use its technology to develop products. But in most cases, the companies have to make a significant investment to bring the product to market. Love says it's not clear Sanofi has invested any of its own money in the Zika vaccine.
LOVE: If they have it's not obvious what they've done. They didn't invent the vaccine. They didn't do the phase one. They're not paying for the phase two or the phase three trials.
KODJAK: He's referring to the clinical trials that determine if the vaccine is safe and effective. The Army right now is doing the phase one trial itself, and the government has agreed to pay Sanofi up to $173 million to finish developing the vaccine. Jon Heinrichs leads vaccine development at Sanofi.
JON HEINRICHS: So while it's true that those costs are being paid for by the U.S. government, we do have substantial investments in this vaccine. We have a large number of people, including some of our best scientists, working on this vaccine.
KODJAK: Sanofi says it has devoted 60 full-time scientists to the project. And it's using proprietary methods to manufacture and test the vaccine.
HEINRICHS: And really, what it costs us are the opportunity costs where those individuals could be working on projects that have a more certain commercial return. And while they're working on Zika they can't be working on those projects.
KODJAK: Senator Bernie Sanders isn't impressed by that argument.
BERNIE SANDERS: So it seems to me that if we are providing substantial amounts of money to a company to distribute and develop this drug that the American people should be guaranteed that they're going to be able to afford the price of the vaccine. And currently, that is not the case.
KODJAK: He says the Army has asked the company for such a guarantee and Sanofi refused. Heinrichs disputes that.
HEINRICHS: We have not refused, and we intend to make this vaccine available at a reasonable price. And I think our record stands. We have made all of our vaccines available to those who need them at affordable prices.
KODJAK: With U.S. customers paying more than the rest of the world for pharmaceuticals, including those made by Sanofi, people such as Sanders are skeptical. Alison Kodjak, NPR News, Washington.
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