Federal Judge Jose L. Linares of the District Court of New Jersey has ruled to move forward to hear an antitrust suit filed by a group of doctors against Sanofi in December 2011. The suit alleges that Sanofi is attempting to monopolize the US meningococcal vaccine market. As a result of the initial suit, Sanofi filed a countersuit in February 2012, which was later dismissed by Judge Linares.
The US National Library of Medicine defines meningococcal meningitis as “an infection that results in swelling and irritation (inflammation) of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord initially infecting the brain and spinal cord.” The disease can ravage the body quickly, and is often fatal without a prompt diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Young people are among the highest risk demographic of contracting the Neisseria meningitides bacteria that causes the disease, especially in close-quarter living situations such as camps, college dorms, and military bases.
“The physicians filing suit, who are organized into physician buying groups (PBGs), claim that Sanofi wrote language into their contracts to stifle competition within the childhood vaccine market,” wrote Brad Tebbets of GlobalData, in an article titled, Heavyweight Battle: Buyer-Versus-Supplier Showdown in Childhood Vaccines. “PBGs are collectives that aggregate the buying power of member physicians (general, family, and pediatric doctors) to negotiate for lower vaccine prices with pharmaceutical companies. The suit alleges that PBGs would be forced to pay higher prices for vaccines if they failed to purchase over 90% of their childhood vaccines from Sanofi. The physicians also contend that PBGs were threatened with penalties if they purchased similar vaccines from Novartis or GlaxoSmithKline.”
Tebbets’s article states that Sanofi was the sole supplier of the meningococcal vaccine for almost three decades with a proprietary pipeline including Menomune (meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine) and Menactra (meningococcal conjugate vaccine). However, in 2010, Novartis attained FDA approval for Menveo (meningococcal conjugate vaccine), and garnered 20% of the $700-million US market within two years.
The suit brings the buyer-versus-supplier power issue under scrutiny. The free market economic concept rewards creativity and invention, which ensures a degree of intellectual property protection. However, it also rewards innovation and ingenuity, fostering competition. The pharmaceutical industry operates within certain provisions set forth by FDA that allow for generic competition to enter the market, which almost invariably makes vaccine prices more affordable for healthcare providers and patients. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in court.