Members of Congress and advocacy groups are voicing outrage after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar—a former pharmaceutical executive—repeatedly refused during House testimony Wednesday to guarantee that any coronavirus vaccine or treatment developed with taxpayer money will be affordable for all in the U.S., not just the rich.
"Under the Trump doctrine, if you are wealthy you can buy a vaccine and not succumb to the sickness," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, said in a statement. "If you are poor or working class, you may have to get sick or even die. That is an outrage. That is unacceptable. We need a vaccine that is available to all."
"He's giving Big Pharma a blank check to monopolize them instead."
—Rep. Jan Schakowsky
During testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, Azar was pressed multiple times to vow that vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus will be priced fairly and made affordable for all U.S. households.
"We would want to ensure that we'd work to make it affordable," Azar told Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), "but we can't control that price because we need the private sector to invest."
Here's the clip of Azar not assuring Rep. Schakowsky a covid-19 vaccine will be affordable to all. pic.twitter.com/Z8aNd4wLWj
— Michael McAuliff (@mmcauliff) February 26, 2020
Schakowsky tweeted following the hearing that she gave Azar "THREE chances to assure us that any coronavirus vaccines or treatments developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be affordable and accessible to everyone and he flat out refused to do so."
"He's giving Big Pharma a blank check to monopolize them instead," added Schakowsky.
Progressive advocacy group Social Security Works said late Wednesday that "this is what happens when you put a Big Pharma CEO who doubled the price of insulin in charge of regulating Big Pharma," referring to Azar's tenure at Eli Lilly.
"Pharma and their friends in the Trump admin don't care how many people die," the group wrote, "as long as they get to make a profit."
This is what happens when you put a Big Pharma CEO who doubled the price of insulin in charge of regulating Big Pharma.
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Pharma and their friends in the Trump Admin don't care how many people die, as long as they get to make a profit. https://t.co/si5jP880O1
— SocialSecurityWorks (@SSWorks) February 26, 2020
Hours after Azar's testimony, President Donald Trump announced in a press conference with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials that Vice President Mike Pence will lead the administration's effort to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Azar was reportedly "blindsided" by the president's decision to put Pence in charge.
Trump continued to downplay the threat the virus poses in the U.S., claiming "we've had tremendous success, tremendous success beyond what many people would've thought," as his administration faces criticism for its slow and woefully inadequate response.
"Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low," Trump claimed.
"Is this just like flu because people die of the flu and this is very unusual. It is a little bit different but in some ways it's easier and in some ways it's a little bit tougher" pic.twitter.com/lf7eV4oXGv
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) February 27, 2020
Shortly following Trump's press conference, CDC officials announced that a person in California tested positive for the coronavirus.
The individual "was not exposed to anyone known to be infected with the coronavirus," the New York Times reported, "and had not traveled to countries in which the virus is circulating."
"It brings the number of cases in the country to 60," the Times noted, "including the 45 cases among Americans who were repatriated from Wuhan, China—the epicenter of the outbreak—and the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was overwhelmed by the virus after it docked in Japan."