In a New York Times op-ed today, Azzi Momenbalighaf and Mariana Mazucato explain that Americans are investing huge amounts in taxpayer dollars on government research to come up with a vaccine, tests and treatments for the new coronavirus. Yet, once again, pharmaceutical companies will be the big winner.
Over the last 17 years, Americans have invested almost $700 million on coronavirus research. The National Institutes of Health took up this research after the 2003 outbreak of SARS. Our tax dollars are currently destined to boost pharmaceutical companies’ profits when the new coronavirus vaccine, tests and treatments go to market. Big Pharma will get a government-issued license to distribute these medicines and tests with no limit on their price.
In short, in return for our investment in critical research, we are not guaranteed either a vaccine or treatment at an affordable price. And, as with the price of insulin, many people will suffer and die unnecessarily.
Congress should now be acting to ensure coronavirus medicines–and all other medicines–are affordable in the US. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has made clear that the Trump administration will not guarantee that the new coronavirus vaccine will be affordable. In response to a huge public outcry, the administration says its rethinking its position on the affordability of the vaccine and other treatments.
The administration could easily ensure the vaccine’s affordability if it granted multiple licenses to different pharmaceutical companies to produce it. In a letter to the administration, forty-six Democrats in Congress urged that the vaccine be “accessible, available and affordable,” given that it is funded with taxpayer money and is a public health priority. Instead, at the moment, corporate drugmakers will get exclusive licenses to produce coronavirus treatments with no demand that they be affordable.
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals will be able to sell a coronavirus vaccine and sell it at whatever price it pleases, even though taxpayers will cover 80 percent of the cost of developing and manufacturing it. And Gilead Sciences will be able to sell another coronavirus treatment, remdesivir, also developed with taxpayer dollars, at whatever price it pleases.
It is worth noting that the original coronavirus spending bill in Congress, which commits $3 billion in taxpayer dollars to research and development for coronavirus vaccines, tests and treatments, had much stronger language on the need for them to be affordable. But, the big Pharma lobby was able to get that language removed.
Historically, giving pharmaceutical companies taxpayer-funded research without requiring them to sell drugs at a fair price has been the norm. Taxpayer dollars have funded almost every new drug developed and FDA approved in the last ten years. Americans pay for much of the research and innovation, and drug companies make outsized profits selling the drugs.
Something has got to change and soon. Congress needs to put the public health and public interest first and prevent profiteering by pharmaceutical companies. If not, Americans will continue to pay too big a price for our drugs, both financially and in lives lost.
Here’s more from Just Care: