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Big Pharma and the pandemic

from the Editors  |  Issue: February 2021
health care workers who died from Covid
Look at their faces
More than 2900 health care workers died in 2020. Gov’t barely kept track.
Photo: KHN

Already a highly lucrative endeavor before the pandemic, Big Pharma (the large pharmaceutical companies) has maneuvered itself to seize further advantages. To paraphrase one commentator, the greater the death and destruction wreaked by the coronavirus, the more it profits Big Pharma.

Big Pharma accounted for 63% of health care profits before the pandemic. Now soaring pharmaceutical stock prices mean bigger dividends for stockholders, despite the havoc wreaked on the economy and public health.

Only in America, which lacks effective price controls, but has plenty of pharmaceutical lobbyists in Washington, is such a situation possible. Pharmaceutical corporations spent $295 million in 2020 to influence legislators, surpassing oil and gas lobby money. Former Eli Lilly operations head and top lobbyist Alex Azar was Health and Human Services secretary under Trump. President Biden was among several major recipients of Big Pharma money, investments which are intended to deepen control of government expenditures and the economy.

Patents rights inserted into the $8.3 billion vaccine package allow companies to charge what they want, prevent competitors from producing cheaper alternatives, and build on the 2002 Medicare Prescription Drug Act that bans government use of its purchasing power in bulk. Other tricks like buying the entire supply of remdesivir, leaving out poorer countries, using orphan drug designation for drugs intended for fewer than 200,000 patients (when there were fewer than that number of Covid-19 cases in the United States at the time) allow Gilead to charge $48,000 per dose when $10 per dose is the cost of the raw material for remdesivir.

In the United States tax money is spent by the National Institutes of Health to develop new medications and vaccines. Under a “public-private” partnership arrangement, these same products are turned over to private companies, which then own and profit from “intellectual property rights” for trials and further development. It is time this changed. We have come a long way from when legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow asked Dr. Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine he developed. His response: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

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