During a House hearing on Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked the CEO of one of America's largest pharmaceutical companies a simple but crucial question: Why does a life-saving HIV drug that costs $8 a month in Australia have a $2,000 price tag in the U.S.?
Gilead chief executive Daniel O'Day declined to comment on the low price of Truvada for PrEP in Australia, but said the reason the cost is close to $2,000—"the current list price is $1,780," he said—in the United States is because the drug has "patent protection."
As the Washington Post reported in March, the development of Truvada as a treatment for HIV was "almost fully funded by U.S. taxpayers."
The U.S. government patented the treatment in 2015, according to the Post, but has "opted not to file an infringement suit to enforce" the patent even as Gilead—which argues the government patent is invalid—rakes in billions of dollars in profits from Truvada.
Ocasio-Cortez highlighted these facts during the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Thursday.
"I think it's important that we notice here that we the public, we the people, developed this drug, we paid for this drug, we led and developed all of the grounding patents to create PrEP, and then that patent has been privatized despite the fact that that patent is owned by the public," said Ocasio-Cortez. "We refuse to enforce it."
"There's no reason this should be $2,000 a month," Ocasio-Cortez added. "People are dying because of it. We own the intellectual property for it. People are dying for no reason. For no reason. We developed this drug."
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In a tweet following Thursday's hearing, Ocasio Cortez answered her own question on why Truvada's price is $8 in Australia.
"Spoiler: Because Australia has universal healthcare," wrote the New York congresswoman.
The reason the United States hasn't joined the rest of the industrialized world in establishing a universal healthcare system is not individual drug company executives like O'Day, said Ocasio-Cortez.
"I don't blame you. I blame us. I blame this body," Ocasio-Cortez said during the hearing. "Because every single developed country in the world guarantees healthcare as a right except us. Except the United States. Because we can't get it together. Because we don't have the fortitude to kick pharmaceutical lobbyists [out of] our congressional offices."