Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with the World Health Organization, federal, state and local public health partners, and clinicians in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. (CDC Public Health Image Library)

By Lynn Carey

The new COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to pandemic proportions, infecting thousands of people as it makes its way from continent to continent. The world needs a coronavirus vaccine now — one that is accessible to everyone and prioritizes saving lives over profits for the pharmaceutical industry. 

I have practiced as a nurse for over 40 years in our health care system — as a clinician, administrator and professor. I know firsthand the critical role that vaccines and new drugs play in preventing disease, treating outbreaks and saving lives. Ensuring readily affordable access to these medicines must be our — and our government’s — priority, not enabling massive profits in the pharmaceutical industry.

The United States has a long history of effectively managing public health crises by leveraging public resources — our taxpayer dollars — to innovate treatments to eradicate everything from measles to polio to rubella. But lifesaving medicines, including vaccines that prevent communicable diseases, can’t work if people can’t afford them.

Despite previous coronavirus outbreaks [before COVID-19] and deadly epidemics like ebola and zika, drug corporations previously showed little interest in creating vaccines, which are costly and sometimes complicated to produce. That’s because vaccines don’t guarantee Big Pharma the massive profits of high-profile, blockbuster drugs — especially since they tend to be administered one time rather than routinely.

But because the new coronavirus is already showing massive potential for volume of infections, two huge drug corporations, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, have jumped in to work with public agencies — hoping to capitalize on the more than $700 million that’s already been put into coronavirus research, and push out a product at a price that makes participation worth their while.

But rather than just filing away the research that taxpayers funded over the last decade to drug corporations and trusting them to provide a vaccine that meets our needs at a fair price, the Trump administration should place some conditions on the deal that ensure our public investment works for us. Instead of granting an exclusive patent that will give these corporations monopoly power to set the price for a vaccine, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should grant a more limited license and implement safeguards to ensure that everyone can get affordable access to the coronavirus vaccine. 

In fact, members of Congress have been urging Trump and HHS Secretary Alex Azar to adopt measures that would do just that in a letter sent Feb. 20, 2020.

Despite all their boasting about innovation, pharmaceutical corporations have spent little of their own capital on developing coronavirus vaccines. Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority just announced it will pay Regeneron, a biomedical corporation with the two highest-paid executives in the entire pharmaceutical industry (to the tune of about $26 million each last year, and a record $193 million with stock options included for chief scientific officer George Yancopoulous in 2012) to develop an experimental treatment for the new coronavirus.

The federal government will fund 80 percent of research, development and manufacturing costs for promising treatments, but there’s no guarantee that we’ll get affordable access to the end products unless the Trump administration insists on reasonable pricing.

Pharmaceutical corporations are motivated by profit, not public health. The United States shouldn’t give a blank check to Big Pharma to test and sell a drug that could mean the difference between spreading the virus and stopping it in its tracks. History shows that when the government gives drug corporations total control over drug prices, those prices go up and patients go without. Just look at the industry’s track record on insulin, Epi-Pens and AIDS/HIV treatments.

Left to their own devices, drug corporations will ensure their own profits, not affordable access to the coronavirus vaccine for every country, community and family. In a world that is increasingly connected and where an infectious disease anywhere is a concern everywhere, Big Pharma’s business model could be deadly.  

Big Pharma doesn’t care about public health, but elected officials and government agencies should. It’s time to ensure that the innovation and development that we pay for protects the health and safety of families, not increased corporate profits.

Lynn Carey is a retired registered nurse from Germantown, Wisconsin. She served as an Adjunct Professor at the Cardinal Stritch University College of Nursing and taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Nursing. She has a PhD and MSN from Marquette University. This piece was first published in the Wisconsin Examiner, which like the Mercury, is part of the States Newsroom network of sites covering state capitols.