Everyone from Sen. Bernie Sanders onward has been piling on this week. And it’s only Monday.
With his usual eyebrow-raising level of frankness, Sen. Bernie Sanders unloaded on “greedy pharma firms,” today in a damning op-ed published by FOX News.
“Greedy pharma firms rip off Americans while Pfizer, Moderna swim in profits,” Sanders began furiously.
“5 of the largest US pharma firms totaled $80 billion in profits, but millions of Americans can’t afford medicine,” Sanders lamented before plowing on.
“All over this country, the American people are asking why it is that they pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs?” continued the perennially outspoken Senator from Vermont, who has become a sort of folk hero among many progressives.
“Why is it that nearly one out of every four adults in America cannot afford their prescription medication?” Sen. Sanders asked pointedly. “Why do nearly half of all new drugs in the United States cost more than $150,000 a year?”
“Examples of corporate greed within the pharmaceutical industry are limitless,” Sanders stormed. “Let’s start with Moderna. This is a company that received $1.7 billion from U.S. taxpayers to research and develop the COVID-19 vaccine and billions more to distribute it to the American people.”
“As a result, Moderna made $19 billion in profits over the past two years and its CEO (Stephane Bancel) became a billionaire who is now worth over $6 billion,” Sen. Sanders went on. “What is Moderna doing to thank the American taxpayer for their generous support? It plans to raise the price of the COVID-19 vaccine by 400% up to $130 when it goes on the commercial market. Meanwhile, it costs just $2.85 to manufacture the product. And, by the way, Moderna has already approved a $926 million golden parachute for Mr. Bancel once he leaves the company.”
Thus began a very bad Monday for big pharmaceutical companies.
It’s an industry that has been enjoying an embarrassment of riches over the past few years. From increased profits to higher public approval ratings, pharmaceutical companies were transformed into heroic edifices during the pandemic.
Culturally, especially on the left, pharmaceutical companies saw their image rehabbed almost overnight. Once seen as the profiteering mercenaries of the medical world, pharmaceutical companies reaped the benefit of Covid19 vaccines to a newfound popularity.
But, just as Sir Isaac Newton promised, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What goes up must come down.
Even as Sen. Bernie Sanders — among others — insist that prescription drug prices in America must do just that, the pharmaceutical industry is suffering other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune already this week.
And it’s only Monday.
“COVID-19 DRUGMAKERS PRESSURED TWITTER TO CENSOR ACTIVISTS PUSHING FOR GENERIC VACCINE,” blared The Intercept last week, in what may have marked the moment things began to turn for the pharmaceutical industry.
“The social media pressure campaign was just a part of the pharmaceutical industry’s successful lobbying blitz to retain patents — and make record profits,” accused Intercept journalist Lee Fang.
“IN NOVEMBER, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a lengthy report showing that pharmaceutical companies went to great lengths to stifle efforts to share pandemic-related patents and IP, including threats to the leadership of Belgium, Colombia, and Indonesia,” wrote Fang. “The Intercept has also detailed the domestic lobbying push to block support for a special World Trade Organization waiver necessary for the rapid creation of generic pandemic medicine.”
“Big Pharma Pushed Twitter to Hide Vaccine Equity Tweets, New Report Reveals,” repeated Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams.
“The allegations in this article suggest that government and industry tried to silence legitimate criticism during a crisis,” responded Maaza Seyoum, Global South Convenor of the People’s Vaccine Alliance. “At a time when online mobilisations were one of the few forms of protest available to the public, Twitter was seemingly asked to shield the powerful from criticism. That should worry all those who care about accountability.”
Big Pharma’s Monday headaches hardly ended there.
“Bivalent Covid-19 Vaccines — A Cautionary Tale,” began Dr. Paul A. Offit, M.D., cautiously, for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on January 11, 2023.
“The Deceptive Campaign for Bivalent Covid Boosters,” Allysia Finley picked up the story for the Wall Street Journal only yesterday. “Studies show they fail to live up to their promise, but vaccine makers and experts keep pushing them.”
“FDA considers major shift in COVID vaccine strategy,” NPR dropped another bombshell on pharmaceutical companies this morning.
“According to a federal official who spoke under the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly,” NPR reported that the new goal, “is to simplify vaccination against COVID and perhaps adopt an approach similar to what is used for the flu vaccine, with annual updates to match whatever strain of the virus is circulating.”
“Currently, people who want to be fully vaccinated against COVID have to first get their primary vaccinations — two shots of the original vaccine spaced weeks apart,” explained NPR. “That’s followed at least two months later by a booster, currently the bivalent shot that’s tailored to protect against omicron.”
“Under the new approach, most people would be advised to simply get whatever the latest version of the vaccine is annually each fall like the flu vaccine,” NPR continued. “They wouldn’t have to worry about how many shots they’ve already gotten and which one they got when.”
Not everyone is a fan of this proposed shift in strategy, some pharmaceutical companies and their representatives included.
Have the old heroes of the pandemic become the new villains of post-pandemic dystopia?
This new narrative, like the old narrative, is overly simplistic.
Pharmaceutical companies can have done a great deal of good during the worst of Covid-19 and still have a good deal more work to do.
And now that the CDC strategy with boosters may be moving towards the long-term, endemic end of the spectrum, the U.S. needs “Big Pharma” to continue to do a great deal of good in improving vaccines and therapeutics year by year.
Hero worship or scapegoating is a false dichotomy. The truth lies, as it so often does, somewhere in between.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)