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As the new coronavirus spreads disease, death, and catastrophe around the world, virtually no economic sector has been spared. Yet amid the chaos of the global pandemic, one industry is not only surviving, it is benefiting enormously.
“Pharmaceutical companies see Covid-19 as a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity, "said Gerald Posner, author of" Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America". The world needs pharmaceuticals, of course. For the new coronavirus outbreak, in particular, we need treatments and vaccines and, in the United States, tests. Dozens of companies are now competing to make them.
“All of them are in that race, ”Posner said, adding that the potential benefits are huge. The global crisis "will potentially be a box office success for the industry in terms of sales and profits," he said, adding that "the worse the pandemic, the greater its eventual profits.“.
With the current crisis, pharmaceutical manufacturers may have even more leeway than usual. Industry lobbyists have managed to insert themselves into the $ 8.3 billion package, approved for coronavirus spending.
The ability to make money from pharmaceuticals is already exceptionally great in the United States, because the country lacks the basic price control mechanisms that other countries have, giving pharmaceutical companies more freedom to price their products. , than anywhere else in the world. Now, with the current crisis, pharmaceutical manufacturers may have even more leeway than usual, because industry lobbyists have managed to insert themselves into the $ 8.3 billion package, approved last week for coronavirus spending .
Initially, some lawmakers had tried to ensure that the federal government would limit the number of drug companies that could profit from vaccines and treatments for the new coronavirus, which they developed with the use of public funds. In February, Representative Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., And other members of the House, wrote to Trump asking him to “make sure any vaccine or treatment developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars is accessible, available and affordable", An objective that they said could not be met"whether pharmaceutical corporations have the authority to set prices and determine distribution, putting for-profit interests above health priorities“.
When funding for the coronavirus was negotiated, Schakowsky tried again. On March 2, he wrote to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, telling him that it would be “unacceptable if the rights to produce and commercialize that vaccine were subsequently handed over to a pharmaceutical manufacturer through an exclusive license, with no pricing conditions. or access, which would allow the company to charge whatever price it wants, which essentially means selling the vaccine to the public that paid for its development.
But many Republicans opposed adding language to the bill that would restrict the industry's ability to make a profit, arguing that it would stifle research and innovation. And while Azar, (who served as the top U.S. lobbyist and chief operating officer for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly before joining the Trump administration), assured Schakowsky that he shared his concerns, however, the bill He continued to enshrine the ability of pharmaceutical companies to set potentially exorbitant prices for vaccines and drugs that are developed with taxpayer money.
The final aid package not only omitted language limiting intellectual property rights to drug manufacturers, but also omitted text, which had been included in an earlier draft, and which allowed the federal government to take any action, if there were concerns that treatments or vaccines developed with public funds were priced too high.
“Those lobbyists deserve a medal from their pharmaceutical clients, because they killed that provision against intellectual property“Said Posner, adding that the omission of the text allowing the government to respond to the price increase was even worse. "Allowing them to have this power during a pandemic is outrageous“.
Private companies that make exorbitant profits from drugs produced with public funds.
The truth is that taking advantage of public investment is also a regular business for the pharmaceutical industry. By Posner's calculations, since the 1930s, the National Institutes of Health has invested about $ 900 billion in research, which was used by drug companies to patent brand name drugs.
According to the Patient Advocacy Group for Affordable Drugs, every drug approved by the FDA between 2010 and 2016 involved research funded by tax dollars, through the NIH. Taxpayers spent more than $ 100 billion on those investigations.
Among the drugs that were developed with some public funds and turned into big revenue for private companies are AZT, an HIV drug; and the cancer treatment Kymriah, whichNovartis now sells for $ 475,000.
In his book "Pharma," Posner points to another example of private companies making exorbitant profits from drugs produced with public funds. The antiviral drug sofosbuvir, which is used to treat hepatitis C, emerged from key research funded by the National Institutes of Health. That drug is now owned byGilead Sciences, which charges $ 1,000 per pill, more than many people with hepatitis C can afford. Gilead earned $ 44 billion from the sale of this drug, during its first three years on the market.
“¿Wouldn't it be great if some of the profits from those drugs went back to public research at NIH? " Posner asked.
Instead, the proceeds have financed huge bonuses for drug company executives, and aggressive marketing of drugs to consumers. They have also been used to further boost profitability in the pharmaceutical sector. According to Axios calculations, pharmaceutical companies make 63% of total healthcare profits in the United States. That's due in part to the success of its lobbyists' efforts.
In 2019 alone, the pharmaceutical industry spent $ 295 million on lobbying. This is much more than what was invested in lobbying by any other economic sector in the country: it is almost double what was spent by the electronics sector (the second group that spends the most on lobbying); than the manufacturing and equipment sector, and much more than twice what oil and gas companies spend.
The pharmaceutical industry is also very generous in its campaign contributions to both Democratic and Republican legislators. Throughout the Democratic primary, Joe Biden has led the pool of recipients of contributions from the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.
The expense ofBig Pharma has positioned the industry well in the current pandemic. While stock markets have slumped in reaction to the Trump administration crisis, more than 20 companies working on the development of a vaccine and other products related to the new SARS-CoV-2 virus have been fought in big measure. The prices of the shares of the biotech companyModern, skyrocketed when the company began recruiting volunteers to do clinical trials of its new candidate for a coronavirus vaccine two weeks ago.
Former senior lobbyists ofEli lillyY Gilead now they serve in theWhite House Coronavirus Task Force.
On Thursday, a day of general carnage in the stock markets, the shares ofEli lilly They also enjoyed a boost, after the company announced it was also joining the effort to come up with a therapy for the novel coronavirus. The company is also thrivingGilead Sciences, who is working on a possible treatment for Covd-19. The price of the shares ofGilead It had already risen since the news that its antiviral drug remdesivir, created to treat Ebola, was being administered to Covid-19 patients.
After theWall street journal reported that the drug had a positive effect on a small number of infected cruise passengers, the price went up even more.
Various companies, includingJohnson & Johnson, DiaSorin MolecularY QIAGEN have made it clear that they are receiving funding from the Department of Health and Human Services, for work related to the pandemic, but it is unclear ifEli Lilly and Gilead Sciencesthey are using government money for their work on the virus. To date, HHS has not issued a list of grant recipients. And according to Reuters, the Trump administration has told senior health officials to treat discussions of the coronavirus, as classified, and to exclude other employees who do not have security clearances, from discussions of the virus.
Former senior lobbyists ofEli lillyY Gilead now they serve in theWhite House Coronavirus Task Force. Azar served as director of operations for the United States ofEli lilly and lobbied for the company, while Joe Grogan, who now serves as a director of the National Policy Council, was the main lobbyist forGilead Sciences.
By Sharon Lerner