No good treatment goes unpunished for pharmaceutical companies these days, and Bernie Sanders offered another example on Wednesday when he held a political show trial of Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel. His offense? Cooperating with the government to produce life-saving COVID vaccines.
The subject of the Vermont senator’s hearing was Moderna’s plan to quadruple the price of its COVID vaccine to $110 to $130 per dose when U.S. government purchases stop. Pfizer has said it will charge a similar price after vaccines move to the commercial market.
But Sanders is specifically targeting Bancel because his company worked with the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed to accelerate its vaccine development. Bancel apparently should have known better than to work with the government.
Early in the COVID pandemic, Moderna received $900 million from Operation Warp Speed for trials to test its mRNA vaccine in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. Pfizer chose to go it alone because “when you get money from someone, that always comes with strings,” as CEO Albert Bourla explained in September 2020. No kidding.
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Sanders claims that taxpayers paid to develop Moderna’s COVID vaccine, and the government thus should be able to dictate its price. That’s nonsense. Before the pandemic, Moderna developed its novel mRNA platform with $3.8 billion in private investment. In spring 2020, it raised an additional $1.3 billion in private capital to scale up manufacturing.
If not for the Moderna and Operation Warp Speed cooperation, the vaccine rollout would have been much slower. Moderna’s vaccine has proven more durable and protective against severe illness than Pfizer’s in real-world studies. Yet the administration has consistently paid Pfizer $3 to $4 more per dose. As a result, Pfizer has received more than a billion dollars more from the government than Moderna.
Yet progressives are targeting Moderna as “a poster child for corporate greed,” to quote Sanders, because they believe this advances their view that pharma companies profit from government innovation and support. The truth is closer to the opposite. The government and public benefit from Moderna’s billions of dollars spent on research and development.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre piled on by claiming Moderna’s price hike is “hard to justify” even as Biden officials hail the benefits of COVID vaccines and boosters. If they are as effective as public health officials say, then the benefits from reducing hospitalizations among the elderly would more than exceed the new higher price.
Taxpayers were getting a bargain under the Operation Warp Speed contract that paid Moderna about $15 a dose. Even after the vaccine transitions to the commercial market, Moderna’s price will be lower than for such vaccines as GSK’s shingles shot ($183) or Merck’s pneumonia vaccine ($216).
Under the Affordable Care Act, Americans with private insurance won’t have to pay a penny out-of-pocket for the vaccines. Moderna will also offer free vaccines to the uninsured. So what’s the problem? Moderna will profit from its innovation. Oh no! Worse, Moderna’s profits will fund trials of other vaccines in development, including for cancer.
Life-saving vaccines and treatments undermine the political narrative that pharmaceutical companies are capitalist exploiters, a view also growing on the political right. That’s why Bancel is in the dock.
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