Rep. Katie Porter (D-California) had some choice words about pharmaceutical companies when it comes to the choice of Covid-19 vaccines. In a recent speech to her Congressional colleagues, she referred to the recent revelation that Pfizer and Moderna may raise the roof on Covid-19 mRNA vaccine prices four-fold up to the $110 to $130 per dose range, which I’ve covered for Forbes. She called it “jacking up the price tag on public health,” which probably wasn’t referring to anyone’s muscles. And for anyone who may say something like “not to worry, the free market will determine prices,” she then explained, “Just two vaccine manufacturers control 97% of the market. They will not compete because they do not have to.”
Porter shared a video clip of her speech via the following tweet:
As you can see, the clip began a big opening: “I rise today in strong opposition to Big Pharma cheating taxpayers.” A little later in the clip, Porter emphasized, “Taxpayers contributed to every aspect of these vaccines from the underlying science to the clinical trials to purchasing agreements but only the manufacturers will profit.” She then mentioned her working on legislation to “prevent “anti-competitive pricing and consolidated markets like vaccines. And this is especially important for products that our tax dollars paid for.” The clip concluded with her saying, “We cannot continue to ask taxpayers to help cover the risk while letting Pharma collude to reap the profits.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 mRNA vaccines certainly aren’t the only Covid-19 vaccines currently on the U.S. market. You may have heard of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) and the Novavax Covid-19 vaccines that use different mechanisms. But how often have political leaders mentioned these latter two vaccines? Maybe as often as people say, “I DuckDuckGo’d her name?” Over the past two years, you wouldn’t be lying if you had said that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines seemed to have received the lion’s share of attention.
It wasn’t always that way. Back in early 2020, a range of different research groups and manufacturers were working on Covid-19 vaccine candidates. As the alpha variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was spreading, it wasn’t completely clear which of these Covid-19 vaccine candidates would become the alphas of the group. At the time, the U.S. government could have put in stipulations that anyone receiving funding from taxpayer money have to either pay back that money at some point or continue to provide the vaccines at some pre-specified affordable price for a pre-specified period of time. After all, that’s what banks and investors do, don’t they? A bank doesn’t just say, “Welcome, take whatever you want.”
At the time, there was enough competition for the U.S. government to have negotiated such terms. It’s not as if too many biotech or pharmaceutical companies would have said, “Oh, I don’t know. Billions of dollars. That sounds like a raw deal.” It was important for the government to put in stipulations before the U.S. became too heavily dependent on one or two manufacturers. That would have been the art of the deal, so to speak.
So the current situation may be due in large part what the Trump Administration had negotiated back in 2020 with the various vaccine developers and manufacturers. So in the first half of 2021 at least, the Biden Administration was rather stuck with whatever the Trump Administration had done the year before, for better or for worse. It was sort of like being given the following tuxedo hours before prom with nothing else to wear:
However, the two years since have offered time for the Biden Administration to rectify whatever needed to be rectified at least to some degree. So has this happened? Well, there could have been more emphasis and support for other types of Covid-19 vaccines to be developed and used. For example, as I covered for Forbes in October 2022, some have wondered why the Novavax vaccine hasn’t gotten more attention, especially since it uses a recombinant protein technology that has already been used for other vaccines like the Hepatitis B vaccine. Also, one shouldn’t simply settle for the currently available Covid-19 vaccines and assume that they are the best ones for the long run. That would have been like phoning it in once rotary phones were available. Or saying in 2000, “It doesn’t get better than the Palm Pilot and Friendster.” There should be more mechanisms to actively encourage the development of new Covid-19 vaccines. While the current vaccines do offer decent protection against Covid-19, they do have their limitations.
Innovation and fairer prices tend to happen when there is competition, not when there are monopolies. Monopolies may allow those doing the monopolizing to rest on their laurels. And resting on laurels in general isn’t a great thing since laurels often are kind of prickly and lack of effort to advance is not great for society. Besides if our country is not able to adapt, the SARS-CoV-2 certainly will.
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