SVG Sprites

Big pharma is taking big money from U.S. taxpayers to find a coronavirus vaccine — and charge whatever they want for it

Market Watch – 6/24/20

OPED by Margarida Jorge, LDPN Campaign Director

Congress must act now to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are affordable

Americans need to have full confidence that decision-makers at the highest levels of government are acting in the interest of their health and well-being.

Since the start of the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. government has funneled more than  $10 billion in taxpayer dollars to pharmaceutical companies through contracts for the expedited innovation of a vaccine. So far, the government’s investment has been made with no strings attached, not even a guarantee that any vaccines and treatments will be affordable to the people who need them. 

In June, White House leaders announced “Operation Warp Speed,” which gives away even more tax dollars and technical support to companies developing five experimental COVID-19 vaccines to be fast-tracked through testing and then mass-produced soon after.  The announcement came with a lot of speculation about what  the companies will charge, but, again, with no assurance that the vaccine needed to beat COVID-19 will be affordable.  

While the Trump administration is rushing the nation’s return to normal and coronavirus cases are surging in more than half of the states, there’s been little action in Congress on the one thing that actually could get things back to normal: ensuring an affordable COVID-19 vaccine that could curtail the spread of the disease.

The first step is obviously the investment we’re already seeing to create the vaccine, but the second step is just as important: regulation and accountability to ensure that medicines we’re paying to develop are accessible to all.

With so many lives at stake, Americans need to have full confidence that decision-makers at the highest levels of government are acting in the interest of their health and well-being. But instead, we’re seeing business as usual from an administration stacked with former pharma executives and a leader of the government’s COVID-19 task force who says it’s counterproductive to set price limits on vaccines. 

Despite decades of evidence that drug companies price-gouge patients to maximize profits, the Trump administration plans to hand them monopoly control over the price of a COVID-19 vaccine.

This is a case study on who really benefits when the U.S. government hands over exclusive licensing deals with no stipulations for pricing. The industry gets richer while Americans are forced to tighten their budgets, ration medicine or go without drugs they depend on. That’s been the reality of giving corporations control over prices.

It’s a myth that high prices reflect the hard work involved in the research and development of new drugs. Time and again we’ve seen drug companies jack up the cost of insulin, cancer treatments, opioids, and HIV/AIDS treatments — all drugs developed with significant taxpayer investments — making drug prices are the biggest driver in health care costs in the U.S. and making the drug industry the most profitable in the nation. Now this cycle is repeating in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Beating COVID-19 is a big job, but the administration’s refusal to guarantee affordable medicines to all citizens declares defeat before we even try. Leaving equitable access to lifesaving medicines up to the corporations violates common sense and basic responsibility. Congress has to step in and stop the pharmaceutical industry from using another public health crisis to line their pockets and increase their stock prices

Congress must act now to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are available to all. It can start with the MMAPPP Act (Make Medications Affordable by Preventing Pandemic Pricegouging), which would put a check on Big Pharma’s monopoly control over prices by requiring drugs developed using taxpayer dollars be made affordable. Congress can also support the TRACK Act, which would require transparency around how taxpayer money is being spent on COVID-19 drug development and clarify what the government has requested in exchange for this investment. 

There’s a long road ahead before COVID-19 recedes from our everyday lives. That timeline will be longer if vaccines are not affordable. To end the crisis, Congress must rein in monopoly control of drug prices — once and, quite literally, for all.

Margarida Jorge is the national campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now, a coalition of social, racial and economic justice organizations working to ensure access to affordable medicines.

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