The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Pharma’s billions sprang from the taxpayer dime

Pfizer said on Nov. 9 that its experimental vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in preventing covid-19. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

In her Nov. 10 op-ed, “The fine print on the new covid vaccine,” Megan McArdle incorrectly stated that prescription drugs account for 10 percent of U.S. health-care spending. That is the figure for retail spending only. Drugs account for 14 percent of spending, according to the trade association PhRMA. The additional 4 percent is for drugs administered in hospitals and physician offices. Her omission understates drug spending by almost one-third, or about $145 billion. She claimed most drugs are developed in pharmaceutical firms, but funding from the National Institutes of Health contributed to all 356 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration from 2010 to 2019. Drug corporations take a handoff after the most risky research is done and a drug shows promise. Private companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech were able to move fast on mRNA vaccines because of foundational research paid for by taxpayers through the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She claimed incorrectly that Pfizer and BioNTech didn’t take government funds for research on a coronavirus vaccine. BioNTech received $445 million from the German government.

Operation Warp Speed is a perfect example of the way taxpayers de-risk drug development. We have invested more than $12 billion to fund clinical trials and vaccine production. If they fail, taxpayers will eat the cost. We socialize risk and privatize profit. Then we pay the highest prices in the world. Taxpayer funding plays a much more important role than she acknowledged.

David Mitchell, Bethesda

The writer is founder of Patients For Affordable Drugs.

Megan McArdle was correct that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the drug development system is working. What she didn’t mention is that the system is working as it was designed: to maximize monopoly profits for the pharmaceutical industry. Corporations do not bring drugs to market alone; lifesaving innovation depends on substantial taxpayer investment and long-term partnerships with federal scientists. But prescription drugs and vaccines are sold under monopoly conditions, leading to higher prices each year and persistent, worsening treatment rationing in the United States and around the world.

Pfizer has made much ado about not relying on Operation Warp Speed’s development funds for its coronavirus vaccine candidate. But Pfizer did rely on a stabilized spike protein technology developed by the federal government. Pfizer’s partner, BioNTech, benefited from $445 million in grants from the German government. Nevertheless, Pfizer charged taxpayers $1.95 billion for an advance purchase of doses that will reach a fraction of the population. There’s no excuse for supply shortages or exorbitant prices for drugs made on the taxpayer dime.

Aly Bancroft, Washington

The writer is campaign coordinator
at Public Citizen’s Access to
Medicines program.

Read more letters to the editor.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.