WASHINGTON — Progressive Democrats are pushing to constrain how much drug makers can charge for a coronavirus vaccine.
A group of lawmakers held a press conference Thursday to pressure the Trump administration to impose price controls on any coronavirus-related treatment, and to call on their colleagues to reconsider some of the ambitious drug pricing legislation they have put forward this Congress. Their platform goes far beyond the Medicare negotiation legislation from Speaker Nancy Pelosi that passed the House in December; they instead highlighted a bill, among others, that would create an independent committee to set the price for any drug created using federal research.
The press conference came less than 24 hours after congressional appropriators rejected those same lawmakers’ attempt to include similar language in the $8.3 billion emergency funding package that is aimed at spurring the federal response to the outbreak. It also came as a new poll from a liberal health care group shows 67% of voters surveyed have serious concerns about the administration’s statement that it cannot control the price of an eventual coronavirus vaccine.
“The big question now: ‘Are we going to turn this over to the pharmaceutical companies who are going to decide if there’s enough profit in this to make sure that all consumers can get what they need?’ And I say absolutely not,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
A coalition of roughly 70 groups, including Public Citizen, Families USA, and MoveOn, also wrote to President Trump on Thursday insisting that the administration require all coronavirus-related government contracts to adhere to “reasonable pricing globally.” They also insisted that the government offer only “open-licenses” for drugs developed by the National Institutes of Health. Under an open license, any drug maker can use NIH-funded research to try and market a vaccine. Typically NIH provides one drug maker an “exclusive license” to take an NIH-developed drug to market.
Exactly how progressives might force the pricing issue is still unclear, especially since the coronavirus funding package is on its way to the president’s desk, after it cleared both the House and Senate this week.
“Unless the pressure is kept on and unless Americans across the country are raising questions about who’s benefiting from what’s going on, we will not see the results that we need,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said when pressed by STAT on how progressives will get the results they are asking for.
Doggett added that progressives need to “keep asking questions, demanding people show up and do briefings and respond [to] questions — get the facts and try to have some accountability.”
The debate over the pricing of a coronavirus vaccine heated up in earnest last week, when health secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers the government “can’t control the price” of an eventual vaccine. He eventually walked back those remarks, but that didn’t stop Democrats from pouncing. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads asking vulnerable Republicans whether they support Azar’s view. Nearly 50 lawmakers wrote to Trump demanding his administration enforce restrictions on vaccine pricing.
That letter — and the idea of including stronger restrictions on pricing in a funding bill — spurred serious negotiations on Capitol Hill, and even nearly derailed the overall emergency spending package. It isn’t clear whether any specific, stronger language was included in early drafts of the legislation, but pharmaceutical industry lobbyists mobilized to fight off what they said were overly aggressive policies.
Steve Ubl, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and CEOs from potential vaccine developers, including Gilead, Sanofi, and Johnson & Johnson, assured Republican lawmakers in a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon that pricing-related provisions were unnecessary. Conservative groups, many of which received funding from the drug industry, also publicly accused Democrats of using a public health emergency “to push an agenda of socialist price controls.” And both drug industry lobbyists and congressional staffers acknowledged to STAT that drug lobbyists were lighting up the phones Wednesday warning lawmakers not to include any major pricing restrictions.
Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told STAT that progressives eventually had to settle to get the funding bill to the president’s desk.
“We couldn’t prolong this,” Pocan said. “I think if we [hadn’t passed an emergency funding bill] this week, we all would be, rightfully so, in trouble with folks.”
Doggett blamed drug makers for derailing his attempts to get stronger pricing restrictions into the bill.
“A big part of this Congress is still in the grip of ‘Big Pharma,’ and it cannot seem to escape that stranglehold,” Doggett said.
The funding bill passed by Congress does include a provision that mentions vaccine pricing, but that section largely reiterates existing law. It says that vaccines bought by the federal government should be purchased in accordance with existing federal procurement policies and that the HHS secretary can use existing law to make sure that vaccines are affordable.
Progressives lamented that that language gives discretion to the HHS secretary on whether to take action on affordability. It’s particularly cold comfort for progressives given their distaste for Azar and his history as a pharmaceutical executive.
Neither PhRMA or the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, which represent pharma and biotech companies in Washington, commented on the legislation. But several lobbyists cheered the fact that the bill didn’t include any new authorities over drug prices.
Drug makers and their defenders in Congress have been quick to insist that vaccine affordability pricing has never been an issue in the United States. They also frequently point to previous comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, who told a reporter in 2017 that he had never seen a pharmaceutical company price their vaccine out of reach.
But this is not the first time progressive groups have complained about vaccine prices. Similar fights have also been waged over vaccines for Zika, Attenuated Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and Parainfluenza vaccines.
It’s still unclear how much an eventual vaccine for coronavirus will cost.
Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day said Wednesday that his company has not yet discussed vaccine pricing with governments. The company is currently in phase III trials for a treatment for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“The topic of pricing comes up once you know whether the medicine works,” O’Day said.
The CEO of Moderna Therapeutics, which is also in late-stage development for a vaccine, told Business Insider Wednesday that there is “no world, I think, where we would contemplate to price this higher than other respiratory virus vaccines.”
Ubl, the PhRMA CEO, also told reporters Wednesday that drug makers are “deeply committed to ensuring affordable access,” to a vaccine, but he balked when asked what specific steps companies would take to live up to that commitment.
“If you look at the context of other pandemics and other vaccines that have been developed, price has not been an issue,” Ubl said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the type of drug Gilead is working on. It is pursuing a treatment for the disease caused by the coronavirus.