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Drug price alliance pushes lawmakers to ensure virus treatments are affordable

The Lower Drug Prices Now coalition seeks legislation preventing drug companies from claiming exclusive rights to COVID-19 treatments

Rep. Jan  Schakowsky, D-Ill., has pushed for legislation prohibiting drug makers from claiming exclusive rights to a COVID-19 vaccine and ensuring affordability of  treatments.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., has pushed for legislation prohibiting drug makers from claiming exclusive rights to a COVID-19 vaccine and ensuring affordability of treatments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A new drug pricing coalition will launch its first campaign Thursday, calling on lawmakers to ensure that vaccines or treatments for COVID-19 will be affordable for patients, according to information shared exclusively with CQ Roll Call.

The Lower Drug Prices Now coalition, made up of nearly five dozen left-leaning think tanks, unions and health care groups, is urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would prevent prescription drug companies from claiming exclusivity rights to a vaccine or treatment and ban them from charging a high price for a drug. Some House Democrats have already called for the next pandemic aid measure to include such provisions.

Democrats sought to include vaccine affordability provisions in an earlier pandemic aid package (PL 116-123), an $8.3 billion supplemental appropriations bill to bolster health care agencies and fund drug treatments, testing and vaccine development. But Republicans did not agree and that was left out. Several House Democrats have said they will push for similar provisions to be included in a future aid package.

The coalition began to form last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic put more public attention on how drug manufacturers develop new treatments and the public funding that contributes to their development, said Margarida Jorge, the group’s national campaign director.

“It’s really exposing in a really poignant way the long-standing problems with the industry’s business model,” she told CQ Roll Call. “It created an opportunity even more for us to launch this no pandemic profiteering campaign.”

The group is launching the campaign Thursday, when the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson holds a shareholder meeting. The company announced a lead candidate for a COVID-19 vaccine last month and is working with federal agencies on its development. The drug manufacturer has said it hopes the vaccine could be ready for a clinical trial in humans by the fall.

Republicans did not agree to include vaccine affordability provisions in the earlier legislation, although they said a vaccine, when it’s available, should be affordable. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a congressional committee last month that instituting price controls on a future vaccine would make it more difficult to partner with private companies to develop a product.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who pushed for the vaccine provisions, told reporters last week that the next aid package should include three provisions that would prohibit a drug manufacturer from claiming exclusivity rights for a vaccine, require companies to charge a reasonable price for COVID-19 drugs and require them to report the costs associated with developing the drugs.

She argued it was important to put into law protections against price gouging for COVID-19 vaccines, drugs or other therapeutics. “In most cases, the American people have already paid dearly, over a billion dollars, in research and development,” she said.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s leading trade group, disclosed spending $9 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2020, slightly less than the $9.9 million the group spent in the same stretch of last year.

The pharmaceutical industry disclosed lobbying on issues related to the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of vaccines and drugs.

Increasing grassroots efforts to push for policies meant to lower drug prices is one way to counter the drug industry’s war chest, Jorge said, adding that the coalition would not receive funding from the drug industry and is instead funded by foundations and other donors.

Jorge said she hoped the nationwide attention on efforts to develop a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19 would underscore some of the drug pricing arguments that progressives have long been pushing. Members of Congress are having tele-town halls with thousands of people who are closely following the legislation that Congress is crafting to respond to the pandemic.

“People have an incredible appetite for information right now,” she said.

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