Amid dustup over taxpayer-funded research, Sanofi executive says it never rejected a Zika vaccine fair pricing request

A Sanofi executive wrote to lawmakers that the company never rejected a Zika vaccine fair pricing request.

After taking a beating in countless press reports over its Zika vaccine partnership with the U.S. Army, Sanofi is hoping to clear the air. In a series of letters to a U.S. Army official and U.S. senators, executives said Sanofi never rejected a fair pricing proposal.

“While it is unclear what or who is the source of this information, Sanofi Pasteur did not reject a specific fair-pricing term proposed by WRAIR as part of the licensing negotiations,” Sanofi Pasteur head David Loew wrote in six separate letters to senators, referring to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Loew went on to say that the research partners “discussed pricing in general,” but “recognized it is premature to set pricing terms at this stage for a technology that will require substantial financial and intellectual capital with no guarantee of a marketable vaccine.” Negotiations for the license remain ongoing.

The claim is in contrast to numerous press reports that the drugmaker balked at a fair pricing request, generating a firestorm of negative publicity. Sanofi posted the letters on its website Friday. Among the senators on the receiving end were Richard Blumenthal, Sherrod Brown and Richard Durbin.

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Sanofi partnered with the Army’s WRAIR last summer to work on the vaccine. As Loew notes, after the institute issued an open call for partners, his company was the only group to submit a licensing application for the technology.

Loew wrote to the senators in response to their June correspondence to Sanofi CEO Olivier Brandicourt, when the lawmakers said it’s “incomprehensible” the French drugmaker would seek an exclusive license on the vaccine without a pricing assurance. The senators called for a public hearing to sort out the details.

The U.S. government announced its intention to license the vaccine technology last December. Soon after, nonprofits such as Knowledge Ecology International urged pricing assurances on the vaccine given that taxpayers helped fund its development.

Those calls gained strength when Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote a New York Times op-ed saying the Trump Administration should cancel the “bad deal.” Sanofi R&D head Elias Zerhouni responded with his own op-ed in the same newspaper defending the partnership.

In response to KEI’s request, the Army said it’s not feasible to “define, implement and enforce 'affordable prices' or to set price controls for a potential vaccine that will require great investment and face high risk of failure." On Friday, KEI director Jamie Love said the U.S. Army has "told senate staffers that Sanofi indicated it would walk away from the license if there was a provision on reasonable pricing." KEI is among those calling for a public hearing on the issue.

So far, Sanofi has received $43 million in government support for the project, with another $130 million potentially available if testing advances. The vaccine technology, which Sanofi says is among the best Zika prospects out there, was initially developed by Army scientists.

RELATED: Sanofi's Zika-shot pricing dust-up highlights a divide over taxpayer-backed vaccine R&D

In a separate letter (PDF) to an Army official, Sanofi Pasteur Senior Director of Business Development Gavin Zealey reiterated that the company remains a focused partner in the project.

Other pharma players GlaxoSmithKline and Takeda have partnered with the U.S. government on Zika vaccine work, and dozens of other candidates are in various stages of development. Sanofi has maintained that, even if it’s granted an exclusive license—and if the vaccine reaches the market—that wouldn’t preclude other groups from developing their own vaccines and competing on price.