This week brought a watershed moment in our COVID-19 odyssey: Full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (and the unveiling of the drug’s meme-making brand name). It’s a remarkable feat — a highly effective and first-of-its-kind vaccine was developed, approved, and brought to market in record time, helping to protect countless people across the globe from the most serious complications of a dangerous and deadly viral pandemic.
Big Pharma has sought to claim credit for the success of COVID-19 vaccines, but the reality is more complex and serves as a reminder that U.S. government intervention and negotiation with pharmaceutical companies can work to benefit everyone.
First, it was taxpayer-funded research that created the scientific building blocks for the mRNA technology used in the vaccines. The government’s decision to underwrite the cost of production, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines — and to buy vaccines in bulk at negotiated rates — guaranteed sales for the manufacturers and removed their financial risk.
The result? More than 363 million vaccine doses (and counting) have been given in the United States at no cost to people queuing up to receive their protection. In turn, vaccine makers have profited handsomely: Pfizer projects the vaccine to deliver $33.5 billion in revenue this year alone.
Despite pharma’s consistent fear-mongering that government involvement dampens innovation, one need only to examine the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to understand that the government “can be a constructive and responsible partner with the industry,” as Mark Miller, EVP of Health Care at Arnold Ventures, co-wrote in an op-ed in The Hill.
The successful public-private sector partnership and massive financial infusion of taxpayer dollars serves as a good reminder as Congress debates ways to lower drug prices. The U.S. can lower drug prices and increase competition — expanding access to more affordable medications and the clinical benefits those drugs provide — while maintaining the financial incentives needed to drive innovation.
This week’s news is also a good reminder for those who were hesitant to get the shot before full FDA approval: It’s time to schedule your appointment. (You should get whichever vaccine is available, but I’m pretty sure getting jabbed with the Spikevax ups your cool factor.)
Evidence shows that vaccination protects you and your fellow Americans — notably young children, who still have to wait before they can get vaccinated — against a disease with a death toll that has already surpassed that of the U.S. Civil War. It’s also a wise economic choice: The average COVID-19 hospitalization costs about $20,000, or about one-year of in-state university tuition. Hospitalizations among unvaccinated individuals in June and July alone were estimated to cost about $2.3 billion.