Cheaper version of protective preemie drug in development

The World Health Organization has recruited companies in low- and middle-income countries to develop and manufacture a cheaper version of Synagis, which is used to protect premature babies from a potentially deadly infection.

WHO will limit markup to 10% on bioequivalent version of Synagis

Synagis is the drug that provides antibodies to young children at high risk from RSV. (CBC)

Synagis could help prevent some of the estimated 200,000 infant deaths caused by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in the developing world every year, but the brand-name drug's price tag keeps it out of reach.

So the World Health Organization is starting from scratch. They have recruited companies in low- and middle-income countries to develop a bioequivalent version.

Companies will manufacture and sell the drug at a fraction of Synagis's Canadian price. The companies will be allowed to sell within their region initially and add a percentage for profit, but the WHO has final say on how much is too much.

"We think a reasonable markup is about 10 per cent," said Erin Sparrow, of the WHO's Technology Transfer Initiative in Geneva. "So you would still get something for under $300 US for the full treatment, compared to $10,000." 

But Sparrow says none of this drug development effort would be necessary if the price of Synagis was lower, at least in developing countries.

The chair of the Utrecht Centre for Affordable Biotherapeutics, working in partnership with the WHO on the program, would much rather see the manufacturer and marketer of the drug simply agree to make it less expensive.

"That's much easier, isn't it? Then we don't have to spend resources on [development]," said Prof. Han van den Bosch.

Palivizumab was originally developed in the U.S. by MedImmune, which is now owned by Astra Zeneca. But AbbVie is licensed to market the drug outside the U.S. Sparrow says both companies were approached about offering a tiered pricing structure to help developing nations. 

"The response we got was that [MedImmune]  had a licensing agreement with AbbVie and that AbbVie were not willing to negotiate," Sparrow said. As for AbbVie, Sparrow said, "We had been told that AbbVie were not willing to discuss it with us."

CBC News asked AbbVie to confirm Sparrow's statements.

The company said in an email: "As AbbVie does not own the IP, you are best to contact AZ MedImmune."

By publication time, AstraZeneca MedImmune had not responded to our request for comment. 

Sparrow said a biosimilar version of palivizumab could be ready for the developing world by 2019.