Let’s talk about drug prices.
Years ago, I was persuaded by arguments from friends who worked at Eli Lilly, Indianapolis’ own “big Pharma” company, who explained the considerable expense entailed by the development of new drugs–including losses incurred when, after the expenditure of millions of dollars, efforts to produce a new medication failed–the drug ended up being shelved. If the government imposed caps on what could be charged for the medications that did emerge, there would be little incentive to spend the zillions necessary, and we would all suffer.
That seemed reasonable, because I didn’t understand how the production of these medications actually worked, and what profits were actually incentivizing.
What initially triggered my deeper investigation was the overwhelming amount of advertising by big Pharma. (Take the purple pill!!) Companies were spending enormous amounts to “incentivize” patients to demand prescriptions from their doctors. (I don’t know about other doctors, but mine absolutely hated these ads, which required him to explain to his patients why pill X or elixir Y was inappropriate for them.)
My preliminary research (granted, a few years ago) revealed that big Pharma was spending more on advertising than on research and development.
Then there was the data showing how much those companies spent on lobbying…
Then there were the reports showing that efforts to produce new medications seldom if ever addressed so-called “orphan” maladies–that is, severe illnesses from which relatively few people suffer–since the markets weren’t attractive. They did spend generously, however, to produce slightly different versions of already-successful products.
But the most revelatory information came when I joined academia and kibitzed with colleagues on the medical faculty. Until then, I hadn’t realized how much pharmaceutical research and development is funded by government. Taxpayers pay, and drug companies profit.
A recent report from Inequality.org highlighted an example from the recent COVID pandemic.
Moderna, the world’s hottest new Big Pharma giant, now has four of its top players sitting on the annual Forbes list of America’s 400 richest. In early 2020, Moderna had none.
Moderna’s Forbes 400 billionaire quartet owes its current good fortune completely to the company’s Covid-19 vaccine. And who made that vaccine possible? U.S. taxpayers. Moderna’s Covid vaccine, as Public Citizen research director Zain Rivzi puts it, “would not exist without the massive contribution of the federal government at every step of the way.”
The Biden administration’s chief science officer for the Covid response, David Kessler, calculates that the federal tax dollars handed to Moderna for vaccine development, testing, and initial manufacture total about $10 billion. And that figure doesn’t include the brainpower of the scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who spent four years actively collaborating with Moderna’s researchers.
Moderna has now filed for a patent on the key vaccine breakthrough these scientists helped produce. The company’s patent application makes no mention of the NIH scientists, a snub that could, notes a Wired analysis, have “major ramifications.”
What are those ramifications? Well, evidently, if a patent gives federal scientists the credit they deserve, the government can license the technology for Moderna’s vaccine to developing countries where vaccination rates remain low.
But if Moderna gets its way — gets approval for a crucial patent that denies credit to federal NIH scientists — the company’s billionaires would have “sole control” over the Covid vaccine technology that U.S. scientists and tax dollars did so much to create. That control would enable Moderna to continue placing profits ahead of people. Way ahead of people.
Over the course of this year’s first six months alone, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times points out, Moderna “pocketed $4 billion in profits on $5.9 billion in revenue, almost entirely from its Covid vaccine, its only product.”
Meanwhile, according to the Mayo Clinic, the most commonly used forms of insulin cost 10 times more in the United States than in any other developed country. Other medications Americans rely upon to survive are also disproportionately expensive here.
According to the Commonwealth Fund
Drug spending in the United States is at an all-time high and still rising. Studies have repeatedly shown that the U.S. pays far more for the same prescription drugs than other high- and middle-income countries. Patients in the U.S. are more likely to report that they can’t afford their medications; half of all of adults with lower incomes go without care because of cost.
Commonwealth also debunks that argument that once seemed reasonable, opining that it “is an overreaction to say that any efforts to address drug pricing will stifle innovation,” since–among other things–the pharmaceutical industry has the largest profit margins of any sector among publicly traded companies.
And since U.S. taxpayers will continue to bear a substantial portion of R & D costs.