‘We will not sell it at cost’: Some drugmakers stand to profit from potential coronavirus vaccine

Executives from major pharmaceutical companies tasked at producing a coronavirus vaccine expressed confidence at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that they would be able to successfully supply a vaccine by the end of this year or at the start of 2021.

While many of these companies previously gave assurances that they don’t intend to profit on the millions of doses of vaccines they hope to produce, some executives clarified their intentions at the hearing.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who represents Illinois’ 9th congressional district, asked the executives if they would sell their product at cost while providing “contract transparency,” an effort to verify that no profit will be made from vaccine production.

“We will not sell it at cost,” said Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna, which was granted $483 million from the U.S. government to develop a vaccine.

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Dr. Julie Gerbading, executive vice president for Merck, another company developing a vaccine, also said at the hearing that her organization would not be selling their vaccine at cost. Gerbading added that Merck is currently not receiving any funding from Operation Warp Speed, the federal initiative aimed at accelerating the vaccine development process to get products to clinical trials at a faster rate. 

To be ready for quick distribution, Operation Warp Speed also calls for manufacturing the most promising vaccines before they get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But companies bear the risk of having to absorb the enormous expense of production costs if the federal agency does not approve their vaccine.

Neither Gerbading nor Hoge clarified exactly how much they would charge consumers for their vaccines. 

Executives from Johnson&Johnson and the British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca promised lawmakers that they would not seek to profit from their vaccines. 

“Under our agreement with Barda, which is for over a billion dollars, it’s funding a clinical development program, which is the 30,000 patients study in adults and children, and it’s also funding the 300 million doses that we’re going to be providing at no-profit to AstraZeneca,” said Dr. Mene Pangalos, an executive vice-president at the company.

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Pfizer, a major multinational pharmaceutical corporation, was asked if its refusal to accept federal funding for its coronavirus vaccine development might lead to potential price gouging. 

“We didn’t accept the federal government funding solely for the reason that we wanted to be able to move as quickly as possible with our vaccine candidate into the clinic,” said John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer.

“We recognize that these are extraordinary times and our pricing will reflect that, and during the term of the pandemic, we will price our potential vaccine consistent the urgent global health emergency that we’re facing,” Young added. “Secondly, we also believe and critically, the COVID vaccine should be free to the public. A vaccine is meaningless if people are unable to afford it and I just want to applaud Congress for passing the CARES Act.”

As of July 21, there are four vaccines which are in the large-scale efficacy phase and 13 which are currently in expanded safety trials, according to the New York Times’ Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker.

While no vaccine candidate has been approved for widespread distribution, certain treatment options have been reported to have benefits on patients with COVID-19. 

Remdesivir has been indicated to reduce hospital recovery time for COVID-19 patients by 30% for patients experiencing certain COVID-19 symptoms, according to a report by MIT Technology Review.

Some have criticized the high cost of remedesivir, which is priced at around $3,200 for a typical treatment course of six vials. In May, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) demanded that Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of remdesivir, price the drug at $1 per dose. Gilead said in June that it would sell the drug to “governments of developed countries of $390 per vial.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.