Your Mutual Fund Could Save Children's Lives and Slap Big Pharma; Doctors without Borders Wants Pharmaceutical Company Shareholders to Persuade Companies to Reduce the Price of the Pneumonia Vaccine, and It Has Just the Website to Help

By Wapner, Jessica | Newsweek, May 12, 2017 | Go to article overview

Your Mutual Fund Could Save Children's Lives and Slap Big Pharma; Doctors without Borders Wants Pharmaceutical Company Shareholders to Persuade Companies to Reduce the Price of the Pneumonia Vaccine, and It Has Just the Website to Help


Wapner, Jessica, Newsweek


Byline: Jessica Wapner

Your retirement funds may do more than offer financial security. They might save lives. With the help of a new website, they can be a tool to prevent children dying from pneumonia. At least, that is what Doctors Without Borders is hoping.

This week, the humanitarian nonprofit, which provides emergency medical care during armed conflicts and other crises worldwide, opened an online tool for finding out whether a given investment package includes shares in Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). These pharmaceutical companies make the only pneumonia vaccines for children, and, the nonprofit says, they are unaffordable for many people living in countries with high rates of this potentially fatal illness.

"These people have money invested with Pfizer or GSK and can actually hold the companies accountable," says Brienne Prusak, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders (known outside the U.S. as Medecins Sans Frontieres).

The website contains a line for entering the name of a mutual fund--say, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund. A search reveals whether a given 401(k), mutual fund or IRA invests in Pfizer or GSK. If the answer is yes, the page provides suggestions for taking action: send messages to the companies via Twitter, petition fund managers by email to insist the companies drop the price, and tell friends to check their pensions for links to Pfizer and GSK, again via Twitter.

"People say they would take action if only they knew how," says Barbara Saitta, a vaccine advocate with Doctors Without Borders who believes most people want everyone to have access to necessary medications. But, says Saitta, the same people who want affordable vaccines often don't know that their financial investments support the companies standing in the way.

Related: How deadly pollution became one of Mongolia's biggest problems

By exposing that connection, Doctors Without Borders hopes Pfizer and GSK will be persuaded to reduce the price of the vaccine to $5 per child for all three doses in all developing countries. Concrete information about current prices is hard to obtain. The prices for the two vaccines vary around the world.

"We ask countries to pay different prices for the same vaccines that reflects their income," says Sarah Spencer, a spokeswoman for GSK. Middle-income countries pay more than the poorest countries for GSK's vaccine. "We believe this is fair," says Spencer. "It allows us to run our business sustainably."

Pfizer also adjusts the price in line with each country's income. In a statement, Pfizer said the company works with "key stakeholders around the world" to advance public health and prevent disease through vaccination. (According to The Atlantic, Pfizer earned $6.24 billion from its pneumonia vaccine in 2015.)

GSK's annual report says its international vaccine sales increased by 10 percent in 2016, driven mainly by expanded use of Synflorix in Asia and Africa. Neither company responded to requests by Newsweek for the exact price of the vaccine in several countries where childhood pneumonia is common. Spencer says GSK does not publish the prices for individual vaccines in each country because of anti-competition rules and "commercial sensitivities."

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death worldwide for children under 5, and more than 900,000 children die from this lung infection every year. Many of these fatalities are preventable--bacteria are the most common cause of pneumonia, and the disease can usually be treated with inexpensive oral antibiotics. But in the low-income countries where most of these deaths occur, these basic medications are too expensive for many people. In India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and other nations with a high incidence of pediatric pneumonia, less than 50 percent of the infected children receive antibiotics. In some countries, that rate falls to less than 15 percent.

Related: Rising antibiotic resistance in children has infectious disease experts scared

Vaccines against pneumonia have been available since 2000. …

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