More than 70 organizations on Thursday demanded that the Trump administration forbid monopolies or price-gouging on all vaccines and coronavirus treatments and to reject any effort by private companies to profit off the public health crisis now roiling the U.S. and the world.
As the government offers subsidies to pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi and Regeneron, the open letter (pdf) from the groups, led by Public Citizen, said, the Trump administration must require all COVID-19 contracts guarantee reasonable pricing for any treatments or vaccines.
"If monopoly pricing of pharmaceutical companies inhibits access around the world, it will hinder our response to what could turn into a global pandemic."
—70+ civil society groups"Allowing companies to price-gouge and hold monopolies on treatment for the respiratory illness which has killed more than 3,300 people so far would have grave implications for the U.S. government's ability to stop the spread of COVID-19," the groups said.
"The imperative of requiring reasonable pricing and access is not just a matter of avoiding profiteering, it's a matter of public health urgency," they wrote. "If monopoly pricing of pharmaceutical companies inhibits access around the world, it will hinder our response to what could turn into a global pandemic."
"We need clear and firm commitments across all funding agencies, and for all types of products," the groups added. "Specifically, we call on your administration to require open, non-exclusive licenses. All manufacturers who can produce high-quality products and commit to reasonable pricing should be allowed to develop vaccines and treatments."
The letter was written days after congressional Democrats pushed their Republican colleagues to include "fair and reasonable price" standards in federal contracts for purchasing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, failing to force Republicans to apply those standards to the commercial market.
Congress just agreed on an $8 billion emergency coronavirus funding bill, after Republicans held it up b/c the bill limits how much drugmakers can profit off the vaccine.— Caroline Orr (@RVAwonk) March 4, 2020
So in the midst of a public health crisis, the GOP was angling to protect price gouging.
Taxpayers, the groups said, have already spent nearly $700 million on research and development regarding coronaviruses including COVID-19, SARS, and MERS since 2002.
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That taxpayer-funded research "has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for the COVID-19 response," the groups wrote. "Taxpayers should not have to pay twice."
"We the People have driven coronavirus research and development—not pharma corporations," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "Americans will not accept Trump giving Big Pharma corporations monopolies or letting pharma corporations profiteer off a potential pandemic that claims lives daily."
Public Citizen led the drafting of the letter a week after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress he could not guarantee that a federally-funded coronavirus vaccine or treatment would be affordable for all Americans. Azar told Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that "we can't control that price because we need the private sector to invest."
Azar, who led drug company Eli Lilly during a period when it doubled the price of insulin, later backtracked on the statement. But as Public Citizen and other groups wrote, "Vague assurances are not enough."
"We the People have driven coronavirus research and development—not pharma corporations. Americans will not accept Trump giving Big Pharma corporations monopolies or letting pharma corporations profiteer off a potential pandemic that claims lives daily."
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen
While not unusual in general, economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in an op-ed on Thursday that allowing the pharmaceutical industry to set the price of life-saving treatment would "be disastrous in the context of an epidemic."
"No, Secretary Azar, it would be ludicrous to leave such operations to private industry," Sachs wrote. "Mr. Secretary, we should not grant patent protection for such a new vaccine produced heavily with public money to fight a global public emergency."
Sachs added that vaccine development should be placed in the hands of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with delivery and funding in the control of the federal government.
"Private industry can be a welcome partner but should operate under clear federal leadership and with no monopoly rights to the vaccine," Sachs wrote.