Democrats blast Moderna CEO over plans to quadruple price of COVID-19 vaccine
Democratic senators lashed out at Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel in a Thursday hearing over his company’s plans to quadruple the price of its COVID-19 vaccine.
The current cost of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine booster is roughly $26 and the company is expected to raise the price up to $130 per dose in the U.S. once the public health emergency ends.
“I would hope very much you would reconsider that decision. It would cost the taxpayers of this country billions of dollars,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), told Bancel.
Bancel told the committee this price was not tied to the company’s financial performance, but was rather a reflection of what he referred to as the shot’s “value.”
The core issue among lawmakers opposing the expected price hike is the billions in federal funding that Moderna received for the research, development and procurement of its vaccine. The company received nearly $1 billion alone from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for vaccine development and trials.
Sanders pressed Bancel on whether he could guarantee that the U.S. would not pay a higher price than other countries for the vaccine, considering the U.S. government’s involvement in its creation. Bancel stated he could not say the U.S. would pay a lower price than other countries.
“More than one quarter of Americans struggle to pay for their prescription medications,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said. “These same Americans are the taxpayers who are footing the bill for research and drug development that companies like Moderna are benefiting from.”
The Moderna CEO acknowledged the U.S. government’s role in developing his company’s mRNA vaccine, the second most administered COVID-19 immunization in the country after Pfizer’s, but appeared to minimize the significance of the government involvement.
“The U.S. government gave us and four other vaccine companies funding to accelerate clinical trials,” Bancel said. “While the government provided $1.7 billion in grant funding, Moderna returned $2.9 billion.”
Bancel characterized the $15 price tag attached to its original vaccine as a “discount” issued by the company in consideration of the government’s contributions and the need for immunizations. He emphasized that Moderna was under “no obligation” to do so and said the updated bivalent dose that is largely being administered is not the same product that was originally developed.
Bancel also argued the price hike would be needed to address the “very complex” issue of transitioning from a pandemic phase to an endemic phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, a situation he pointed out has not been seen in recent history. He added this his company must also shift from having only one U.S. customer, the federal government, to having thousands of individual customers.
Republican committee members didn’t hold back on Bancel either. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) agreed with Sanders, saying he thought it was “outrageous” to charge American $130 for the vaccine.
The disagreement between himself and Sanders was how to address this issue, said Marshall, arguing that while Americans pay more for medications, they also have more access to “miracle drugs” than other countries.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) called for transparency from the company, particularly into the supposed costs necessitating the price increase.
“Why do you need this much money?” Braun asked, adding “A 400 percent price increase is preposterous, especially when you’ve been given all this government largesse.”
He also questioned why Moderna appeared to be developing a distribution network from the ground up, potentially driving up costs, instead of making use of existing distributors. Bancel stated that distribution had been handled by the federal government so far, but said his company was looking into using pre-existing drug distributors which would take time in setting up.
Bancel added that this was the first commercial product his company had brought to market, which several senators on the committee also noted in their scrutinies
Despite the price hike, Moderna has committed to ensuring that the vaccine is available to consumers at a low-cost or no-cost regardless of insurance status through various assistance programs within the company.
Members of the panel pressed Bancel on how his company sought to pull this off, with Democratic Sens. Bob Casey (Penn.), Tina Smith (Minn.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.) advising the CEO to not make its pricing programs tedious or overly complicated.
“This program cannot simply be a public relations exercise that provides cover for the company to hike prices on families seeking COVID-19 vaccines,” Hassan said, asking how quickly data on its patient assistance program can be provided. Bancel indicated that a timeline for the release data has not yet been finalized.
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