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'What Corporate Welfare Is All About': Sanders Condemns Lack of Price Controls on Taxpayer-Funded Remdesivir

"Gilead did not make this drug alone. The public has a stake and must have a say in setting the price."

An intensive care nurse treats a patient at an intensive care unit at the Klinikum Bad Hersfeld hospital on March 20, 2020 in Bad Hersfeld, Germany.

An intensive care nurse treats a patient at an intensive care unit at the Klinikum Bad Hersfeld hospital on March 20, 2020 in Bad Hersfeld, Germany. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders was among critics who objected Wednesday after it was reported that although U.S. taxpayers provided millions in subsidies for the pharmaceutical giant Gilead to develop remdesivir, which could help treat the coronavirus, the government is not expected to have any say in setting the drug's price.

"This is what corporate welfare is all about," declared Sanders, a Vermont Independent. "The taxpayers fund the research, Gilead will make huge profits, and consumers will pay outrageous prices."

Remdesivir was originally a "cast-off" drug, the Washington Post reported, that was only developed with the aid of "tens of millions of dollars of government research support." The role of the government in developing the drug has set the stage for a showdown. 

As the Post reported:

Despite the heavy subsidies, federal agencies have not asserted patent rights to Gilead's drug, potentially a blockbuster therapy worth billions of dollars. That means Gilead will have few constraints other than political pressure when it sets a price in coming weeks. Critics are urging the Trump administration to take a more aggressive approach.

"Gilead did not make this drug alone," Public Citizen's access to medicines program director Peter Maybarduk said in a statement. "The public helped make it, and the public has a stake."

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While acknowledging the role of government funding in helping to develop the drug, Gilead spokesman Ryan McKeel downplayed the importance of the assistance, focusing instead on the company's creation of the drug. 

"Gilead researchers invented remdesivir more than a decade ago, identified its broad-spectrum antiviral activity, optimized the formulation of the product and scaled up the manufacturing process," McKeel told the Post. "Although government funding was used to further characterize remdesivir's profile after its initial discovery, this did not result in the creation of the underlying intellectual property invented by Gilead."

While the extent of the drug's applicability to treat Covid-19 is unknown due to ongoing trials, preliminary results were good enough for National Insittute of Health director Dr. Anthony Fauci to declare the medication the "standard of care" in the absence of other treatments. 

But reporting Tuesday from The Intercept indicates even the modest results showing the drug helps to cut hospitalization times may be exaggerated. 

"Remdesivir doesn't work at all, as far as I can tell, or has only a minor effect," scientist William Haseltine told The Intercept, adding the drug "is comparable to Tamiflu and maybe not even as good."

According to The Intercept:

The excitement about remdesivir is based largely on a study sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that showed people taking the drug had a faster recovery than those who didn't take it: 11 days on average compared to 15 for those taking a placebo. An article published on May 22 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed mild improvement in hospitalized patients that took remdesivir, though the drug didn’t appear to be of any help to the sickest patients, who needed to receive high-flow oxygen through ventilators or other means. Nor did the drug significantly improve a patient's chance of surviving Covid-19.

However effective the drug, the story of its development and who stands to make money is a tale as old as time, tweeted Modern Healthcare columnist Merrill Goozner.

"The typical backstory during health crises," said Goozner, "taxpayers and patients pay; private firms reap the reward."

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