Yes, the Government Can Control the Cost of a Coronavirus Vaccine | Opinion

When I was diagnosed at age 32 with ALS, a debilitating disease that would give me a life expectancy of three to four years, my ability to access medicine became a matter of life and death. That's true for millions of Americans who rely on one or more drugs to stay alive. But something unusual is happening in our medical system today. Right now, there is one prescription drug that every single American needs urgently: a vaccine for the coronavirus. It's rare that the need for one drug can be so universal—so crucial to the health of everyone in the country, the health of the economy and the very stability of our society.

But last February, President Donald Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made a shocking, if revealing, statement—one that was completely divorced from reality. When asked during a congressional hearing whether the government could assure that a coronavirus vaccine would be available and affordable to all Americans, he stated plainly that it could not—that, in his words, the government "can't control that price because we need the private sector to invest."

The claim that the U.S. government has no control over drug prices is, simply put, a lie. But it isn't a new lie. It's one that millions of Americans have already been living with for decades. Every day, Americans suffer and die because of our government's refusal to provide for its citizens in the way that every other industrialized nation does—by using its power to regulate pharmaceutical monopolies and patents, stop price gouging and control the prices consumers pay for their drugs.

Today, Americans pay nearly four times more for prescription drugs than people in other countries, and in some cases nearly 67 times more for the exact same drug. But this crisis of affordability is not news to anyone. What is less known is that Americans pay for most of their drugs before they have even shown up to the pharmacy to purchase them and before their doctor ever prescribed them.

A common misconception about pharmaceutical companies is that their primary activity is the research and development of new drugs, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Most new drug research is sponsored by our own government—our government's funding for the coronavirus vaccine itself just being the latest example. In fact, according to a 2018 study, taxpayers funded the research behind every new FDA-approved drug between 2010 and 2016.

It is typically only after the government bears the risk of funding research into a new drug that these companies are then allowed to privatize, patent, monopolize and sell those drugs back to the very consumers who funded their development in the first place—at astronomically inflated prices. Drug companies spend vastly more on the marketing of old drugs than the development of new ones, and the rest of their profits are plowed into stock buybacks and outlandish executive compensation.

This results in a scenario in which people throughout the world are better able to take advantage of the life-saving medications developed by U.S. government funding, while Americans themselves face medical and financial crises as a result of not being able to afford those very same drugs.

Since my diagnosis with ALS, I've come to realize that failing to focus on this problem at home—and instead focusing on access to drugs in poorer countries—was the biggest strategic mistake of my career as an activist. It was foolish to think that we could adequately address a problem in another country when we could not even address it in our own.

Alex Azar
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar listens as President Donald Trump meets with industry executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 27 in Washington, D.C. Doug Mills/The New York Times/Pool/Getty

In the wake of the coronavirus, it is clearer than ever that if we are to serve as a beacon of justice for the rest of the world, we have to focus on the deep structural deficiencies, inequalities and injustices here at home—none more acute and life-threatening than the problem of unaffordable prescription drugs.

That problem could be solved right now with no new laws if our government would exercise the authority it already has to override patents and break monopolies by purchasing drugs directly for a just price and guarantee that everyone gets the medicine they need, regardless of their ability to pay. Now, when a pandemic has shown how one drug or vaccine can be so crucial to life itself, is the time to do it.

Ady Barkan is a progressive activist who founded the Be a Hero PAC and built two programs at the Center for Popular Democracy. He graduated from Yale Law School and Columbia College, and lives with his wife and their young son in Santa Barbara, California. Barkan's book, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance, was published last year by Atria Books.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.