Bernie Sanders Wants to Haul Big Pharma in Front of Congress

Analysis by Rachel Roubein with research by McKenzie Beard; Washington Post

Moderna’s CEO will testify before the Senate as the company faces backlash over a looming vaccine price hike

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hauling his first pharma CEO to Capitol Hill.

In a hearing next month, the new chair of the Senate’s sweeping health panel is planning to publicly grill Stéphane Bancel, the top executive at Moderna, about the company’s reported plan to more than quadruple the price of its coronavirus vaccine, our colleague Liz Goodwin reports.

Sanders has pledged to use his new perch as Senate HELP Committee chair to move “very aggressively” on the high cost of prescription drugs. 

The hearing foreshadows the independent firebrand’s approach to his new position with the pharmaceutical industry expected to be caught in his crosshairs time and time again. His rhetoric could put pressure on companies to attempt new ways of boosting access to drugs or making medications more affordable, though legislation aimed at drugmakers won’t pass in a divided Congress.

Sanders is particularly incensed at Moderna, arguing the drugmaker is the “poster child” for greed within the pharmaceutical industry. The company’s only federally approved drug is the coronavirus vaccine, which it received billions in direct federal funds to develop. 

  • “We’re going to ask them, ‘Hey, you made billions of dollars in profit on a vaccine that was developed because of taxpayer support from the [National Institutes of Health], you’ve become a multibillionaire, and you think it’s appropriate to cost the federal government even more money by quadrupling prices?’” Sanders told Liz. 
The Details

The hearing is slated for March 22 and will consist of two panels.

Up first is Bancel, who agreed to testify without being subpoenaed. Forbes puts his net worth at more than $5 billion, and Sanders plans to argue that Bancel and several other Moderna executives “profited” off the pandemic.

The second panel includes Christopher Morten, of Columbia Law School; Ameet Sarpatwari, of Harvard Medical School; and Craig Garthwaite, of Northwestern University.

The view from Moderna: The company said in a statement yesterday that it “remains committed” to making sure Americans will have access to the vaccine no matter their ability to pay. (More on that later.) The company previously told The Health 202 that it was “committed to pricing that reflects the value that covid-19 vaccines bring to patients, health-care systems and society.”

On Capitol Hill

Sanders believes he’ll get buy-in from Republicans in his quest to focus on pharmaceutical greed. Yet, it’s highly unlikely they’ll have the same tune as the self-described democratic socialist who frequently rails against the drug industry in hearings and on the Senate floor. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.) — the health committee’s ranking Republican — told The Health 202 that he wanted to hear more from Pfizer and Moderna before passing judgment on their decisions to hike prices. 

In the Capitol yesterday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he wanted to ask Bancel about the “progress of pharmaceutical innovation” in the country, and how U.S. prices compare with other nations. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who sits on the panel and has staked out an increasingly skeptical posture on vaccines — said he was “in favor” of Sanders’s move to bring Bancel in front of the panel. He declined to detail what questions he planned to ask the Moderna executive. 

There is the possibility that some members of the committee will use the Moderna hearing to sow doubts about the vaccines, which Sanders acknowledged to Liz. Vaccine access the federal government has been purchasing coronavirus vaccines, making them free to all Americans throughout the pandemic.
That will change at some point this year, as the Biden administration will shift payment and procurement of the shots to the commercial market. Such a move wouldn’t affect those with insurance, but it has raised concerns about how the uninsured will be able to afford and access the vaccines. That would have likely been a big question at the March hearing. But since the company’s CEO agreed to appear in front of the Senate health committee, Moderna announced a “patient assistance program” that will provide coronavirus vaccines free to the uninsured or underinsured. A company spokesman said the looming hearing didn’t play a role in the decision to create the new program. 
Similar to Moderna, Pfizer is considering pricing its vaccine at $110 and $130 on the commercial market. A company spokeswoman said eligible U.S. residents without insurance will also be able to access the coronavirus vaccine for free through a patient assistance program, and both companies declined to share details on what such programs would look like.
For the administration’s part … Ashish Jha, White House covid czar, tweeted that “We are committed to ensuring that vaccines and treatments are accessible and not prohibitively expensive for uninsured Americans.” But the White House also hasn’t released a plan, so it’s unclear how such a program would operate.