Coronavirus Treatments and Vaccines Will Only Work if They Are Affordable | Opinion

Over the past decade, almost every new medication brought to market was paid for by a hefty investment from taxpayer dollars. Each of these drugs was developed in the interest of a greater public good: to alleviate pain, improve health and save lives. However, accountability for public funding has not prevented pharmaceutical corporations from hiking up prices on new and existing drugs for patients, increasing the cost of prescription drugs up to 10 percent every year.

As the global search for a COVID-19 vaccine continues, the American public has good reason to be skeptical that pharmaceutical corporations will be our saviors. Well before this pandemic, we watched drug corporations persistently price gouge on everything from insulin to EpiPens, putting those remedies out of reach for millions and costing lives. The industry argues that it must increase profits in order to recoup investments in research and development. But the facts tell a different story: The nation's largest drug corporations spend more money on marketing and stock buybacks than on developing new medicines.

Congress has already invested billions of taxpayer dollars to expedite research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments by industry giants like Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Gilead. As chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky has asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and other Trump administration officials over and over again for a guarantee that these medicines will be affordable for all—and none would offer that promise.

We must hold them accountable for doubling down on the business-as-usual model that gives drug corporations monopoly power to set prices on the COVID-19 treatments and vaccines we need to combat the biggest public health crisis we've seen in our lifetimes. We will be introducing a bill this week that would do just that.

Many in the Senate and House would have Americans believe that Washington has no power over Big Pharma's pricing decisions, but those of us in Congress who have been trying to rein in drug corporation profits for decades know that is not true. President Donald Trump and Azar have existing authority to regulate the drug corporations, to block monopoly control of prices and to ensure affordable access to medicines for millions. To obtain lasting results, Congress can and should pass legislation to this effect. But instead of holding drug corporations accountable for prioritizing their profits before public health, we have seen far too many people willing to let the profiteers hold patients hostage, forcing them to pay whatever prices Big Pharma sets.

Without intervention to stop this pandemic profiteering, the pharmaceutical industry will use every opportunity to rake in more profits by setting higher prices. Already, we've seen Gilead use the "orphan drug" loophole to request and receive an additional seven years of exclusivity on a possible COVID-19 treatment; they only asked FDA to rescind their orphan drug designation after 51 organizations denounced the agency's decision and put pressure on Gilead to stop gaming the system. However, this behavior is not new. Last year, the president included a sweetheart deal for drug corporations in his proposed U.S-Mexico-Canada trade agreement that would have locked in 10 years of patent exclusivity for biologics, tying Congress' hands from lowering this exclusivity. Thankfully, the House negotiated an agreement without this provision and prevented Big Pharma from further jacking up prices and avoiding competition across North America.

We know drug corporations will continue to exploit opportunities to profiteer just as they have in past epidemics like HIV/AIDS, the man-made opioid crisis and chronic health diseases like diabetes. But as COVID-19 ravages the globe, we also know that any medicine or vaccine the drug corporations develop with public money is 100 percent ineffective for those who can't afford it.

Trump vaccine
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 15. "President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar have existing authority to regulate the drug corporations, to block monopoly control of prices and to ensure affordable access to medicines for millions," the authors write. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Lower drug prices should not be a partisan issue. That's why we are introducing legislation establishing three protections against price gouging for COVID-19 vaccines, drugs or other therapeutics: an end to the exclusive monopoly control that allows select drug companies to manufacture and determine the cost of medicines; a guarantee that pharmaceutical corporations are not allowed to sell any COVID-19 vaccine, drug or therapeutic at an unreasonable price; and a requirement that manufacturers publicly report total expenditures, including actual research and development, and the percentage of those expenditures that were derived from federal funds.

These reforms are long overdue, and the problem of drug price gouging is certainly not exclusive to COVID-19. It will take all of us—Democrats and Republicans—to stop drug manufacturers' profiteering once and for all, and the time for action is now. The toxic pattern of behavior by pharmaceutical corporations will not change unless lawmakers intervene—and finally prioritize the health of Americans over more profits for Big Pharma.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is the U.S. representative for Illinois' 9th Congressional District. Congressman Francis Rooney is the U.S. representative for Florida's 19th Congressional District.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.