A prescription bottle beside pills. (Photo by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, via CreativeCommons)

Americans are grateful for the COVID-19 vaccines — quickly produced, safe and effective, and currently free to receive — and await their turn to receive their shots. Yet, far too many of us cannot afford the drugs vital to our health

Drug corporations continue to make hefty profits from setting drug prices that far exceed prices for the same drugs in other countries and from raising prices on older drugs just because they can.

The COVID-19 vaccines bring a new consideration into this dynamic: They show how for many high-value products, prescription drug corporations rely on up-front taxpayer dollars for low risk discovery and even product development, while they amass high rewards at the end for themselves.

Top row: Lisa Bero, Mark Levine. Bottom row: Dean Baker, Aaron Kesselheim

The COVID-19 vaccine is built on technology that had already been discovered and studied with substantial taxpayer investment via the National Institutes of Health, well before we even heard of this deadly strain of coronavirus. While drug corporations have invested in the final development and manufacturing of the vaccine, they have done so with very little financial risk due to the infusion of taxpayer dollars from Congress and the promise of advance purchase and market commitments of the U.S. government and those of other countries.

The federal government invested $10 billion from people like you and me into the development of these vaccines. And, as we’ve seen with the development of other drugs, after taxpayer funds were used to pay for the research and development, there is no requirement the vaccine be provided or sold at a reasonable cost now or in the future.

While it will be some time before we know how much companies like Pfizer and Moderna will profit from selling the COVID-19 vaccines to the government with our tax dollars, some estimates indicate they could make over $30 billion worldwide from the vaccines this year alone.

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We’ve seen this story play out time and again as new medications are brought to market. Too often, we pay the pharmaceutical companies twice: At the starting point, we fund the development of important drugs; and at the endpoint, when we pay whatever high price they charge us for the developed product.

More and more of us struggle to afford the costs of the medications that we need to stay healthy. This has been made much more difficult by the economic turmoil of this public health emergency. 

Even prior to the pandemic, nearly one in three Coloradans reported skipping doses, cutting pills, or not filling a prescription they need because they cannot afford the cost of the drug. And yet, Americans pay 60% to 85% more than people in other countries do for the same drugs. 

This is even true for COVID-19 vaccines; leaked information in December showed that the EU was paying $14.70 per dose for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while the company was charging $19.50 to the U.S. government. Other countries control costs by setting reasonable prices, establishing payment or reimbursement limits, and pharmaceutical companies still make a profit in those countries — or they would have exited their markets by now.

Drugs don’t work if people cannot afford them. No one should be forced to fill a prescription they need instead of paying their rent or putting food on the table. But, that is increasingly happening in the U.S. because we let brand-name manufacturers charge whatever they want for their products.

As we breathe a tentative sigh of relief and wait our turn to get vaccinated, we cannot forget the investments the American people have made in these vaccines and other drugs. It is past time that we curb the costs of prescription drugs, including vaccines, through government action to ensure what we’re paying is fair and affordable. 

Colorado legislators have the opportunity to lead the way to rein in drug costs, and we strongly encourage them to take it.

Lisa Bero is chief scientist at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Mark Levine is a geriatric medicine specialist in Colorado. Dean Baker is senior economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Aaron Kesselheim is professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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Special to The Colorado Sun

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Special to The Colorado Sun