Sanofi exec fires back amid fight over Zika vaccine license

Sanofi R&D chief Elias Zerhouni is pushing back against criticism over a Zika vaccine licensing deal from the U.S. Army.

After taking a beating over a proposed Zika vaccine license from the U.S. Army, Sanofi is hitting back. R&D chief Elias Zerhouni wrote a letter to New York Times editors stating that Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently lambasted the proposal, “doesn’t seem to recognize” the importance of public-private partnerships.

Zerhouni contends that Sanofi is not getting something for nothing in the arrangement and that the collaboration could lead to a shot that would protect the public from a devastating disease.

Earlier this month, Sanders took the proposed license to task in a New York Times op-ed, saying President Donald Trump should move to block a “bad deal” for American taxpayers. As part of an “insane system,” Americans would pay twice for the vaccine, Sanders argued: first for the initial research and then later if they need protection against Zika.

Zerhouni, for his part, says that if the candidate eventually makes it to market, Sanofi would owe “significant” milestone and royalty payments to the government. Those terms haven’t yet been negotiated, according to a company spokesperson.

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Sanders’ interest in the situation came after nonprofits such as Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) and Médecins Sans Frontières kicked up some dust over the licensing proposal. Among KEI’s arguments were that the license would “not be legal” because it isn’t necessary to motivate Sanofi to develop the vaccine through to the market. The groups are also pushing for more pricing and access safeguards as part of the deal.

But Zerhouni, who previously served as head of the NIH, says vaccine development against a virus like Zika “entails tremendous costs and risks.” To best address the situation, the government has opted to partner with multiple pharma companies, who are each “competing to develop” potential vaccines, he wrote.

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Aside from Sanofi, the government has also partnered with companies including GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda on different approaches to combat a virus that dominated the world's attention last year.

Some of Sanders’ Democratic colleagues have also taken exception to the Army's proposed deal, recently writing to Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer to “strongly urge” against the move. Addressing that letter, a Sanofi spokesperson stated that the company is “well-positioned” to help in the Zika vaccine effort as the world’s top flavivirus vaccine developer.

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A decision on the license is expected later this year, Sanders said.

Sanofi has so far won $43 million in development assistance for the shot, originally developed by Army scientists, and is expected to apply for more funds if the program advances.