Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday denounced Moderna's proposal to more than quadruple the price of the Covid-19 vaccine it co-developed with billions of dollars in public funding—along with mRNA technology co-invented by government scientists—as an example of Big Pharma's "unacceptable corporate greed."
At a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), the Vermont Independent reiterated his widely shared belief that the purpose of medical advancements should be to save as many lives as possible, not make executives "obscenely rich."
Sanders, who chairs the panel, invited Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel to testify at a hearing titled "Taxpayers Paid Billions For It: So Why Would Moderna Consider Quadrupling the Price of the Covid Vaccine?"
In his opening statement, Sanders stressed that scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies "worked with Moderna to research, develop, and distribute the Covid vaccine that so many of our people have effectively used."
"While Moderna may wish to rewrite history," Sanders continued, "this vaccine would not exist without NIH's partnership and expertise and the substantial investment of the taxpayers of this country. As a matter of public record, U.S. taxpayers spent $12 billion on the research, development, and procurement of the NIH-Moderna Covid vaccine."
"For that huge investment," added the progressive lawmaker, Moderna is "thanking the taxpayers of America by proposing to quadruple the price of the Covid vaccine to as much as $130 once the government stockpile runs out—at a time when it costs just $2.85 to manufacture that vaccine."
"Moderna has already made $21 billion in profits off of the Covid vaccine during the pandemic and four of Moderna's executives and investors collectively became more than $10 billion wealthier as a result of the massive taxpayer investment into that corporation," said Sanders. "Mr. Bancel literally became a billionaire overnight and is now worth $4.7 billion."
"Do we not need to change the current culture of greed into a culture which understands that science and medical breakthroughs should work for ordinary people, and not just enrich large corporations and CEOs?"
In the words of the senator, "This type of profiteering and excessive CEO compensation is exactly what the American people are sick and tired of."
In response to a letter Sanders sent to Bancel following Moderna's January announcement of its planned price hike, the corporation vowed to make Covid-19 vaccines and boosters "available at no cost for the vast majority of people in the United States." Last month, after Bancel agreed to testify at Wednesday's hearing, Moderna said that when the federal government's public health emergency declaration expires in May, "Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be available at no cost for insured people," while the company's patient assistance program "will provide Covid-19 vaccines at no cost" to uninsured or underinsured people.
"That is good news," Sanders said Wednesday. "The bad news is that most patient assistance programs are poorly designed and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for patients to access," he added, urging Moderna "to reconsider their decision to quadruple the price of this vaccine and not raise the price at all."
"Our committee looks forward to working with Moderna to develop a program that allows every American to continue to receive the Covid vaccine for free without the need to file complicated forms or paperwork, answer personal questions, or wait for hours on end at the pharmacy," said Sanders. "In other words, let us truly make this vaccine available for free to all Americans."
But when asked by Sanders if Moderna will charge the U.S. government less for the NIH-Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, Bancel refused to commit, citing so-called "complexity."
"You have money for stock buybacks by the billions, and you guys became billionaires," Sanders responded. "That doesn't seem too complex to me."
In a video shared Tuesday, Senate HELP Committee senior health counsel Zain Rizvi further detailed how Moderna has tried to suppress evidence of the U.S. public's massive contributions to the NIH-Moderna Covid-19 vaccine while refusing to share the recipe with South African scientists who are working with the World Health Organization to boost global supply.
The refusal of Moderna and other pharmaceutical corporations to transfer publicly funded technology to qualified generic manufacturers has contributed to global Covid-19 vaccine apartheid, needlessly prolonging and worsening the pandemic.
Although Covid-19 jabs have been credited with preventing roughly 20 million deaths worldwide in 2021 alone, researchers estimate that 1.3 million additional lives could have been saved in the first year of the vaccine rollout had shots been distributed equitably. As a result of unequal access to lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines—made worse by corporate-friendly trade rules that protect Big Pharma's intellectual property monopolies and lead to artificial scarcity—one person suffered an avoidable death from the disease every 24 seconds in 2021.
"Moderna has taken a publicly funded vaccine, built on decades of publicly funded research, and used it to maximize their own profits at the expense of public health," Julia Kosgei, policy co-lead for the People's Vaccine Alliance, said Wednesday in a statement. "It's long past time for Stéphane Bancel to be held to account."
"Today's hearing must be the beginning of a conversation about how governments can place public health needs before private profit. That means requiring companies that profit from publicly funded research to share new technologies with the world."
Citing the corporation's latest earnings report, Kosgei noted that "Moderna is spending as much on buybacks and dividends as it is on research and development." She called it "plainly ludicrous to suggest that this is the best way to ensure everyone has access to effective vaccines and medicines."
"This should be a moment of reckoning for Big Pharma," said Kosgei. "Today's hearing must be the beginning of a conversation about how governments can place public health needs before private profit. That means requiring companies that profit from publicly funded research to share new technologies with the world."
Like Kosgei, Rizvi stressed that Moderna's behavior is not unique and called for far-reaching action "to put an end to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry."
That's also precisely what Sanders did during his opening remarks:
In the pharmaceutical industry today we are looking at an unprecedented level of corporate greed—and that is certainly true with Moderna. Today, while 37% of the American people could not afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe, 10 major pharmaceutical companies made over $100 billion dollars in profits in 2021—a 137% increase from the previous year. In these corporations, the 50 top executives made over $1.9 billion in total compensation in 2021 and are in line to receive billions more in golden parachutes once they leave their companies. In other words, Americans die because they cannot afford the outrageous cost of prescription drugs, while the drug companies make huge profits.
Further, while many Americans don't know this, the taxpayers of this country have spent many tens of billions of dollars over the past decade to research and develop life-saving medicine. Yet, despite that huge investment, and the vitally important work done by NIH scientists, the citizens of the United States pay far more for prescription drugs than do the people of any other country, in some cases, as much as 10 times more. Unbelievably, there are important drugs on the market today that literally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"What does a lifesaving drug mean for a person who cannot afford to buy that drug?" Sanders asked. "Should people in America and around the world be allowed to get sicker and sometimes die because they cannot afford the outrageous and arbitrary prices that the pharmaceutical industry demands?"
"Do we not need to change the current culture of greed into a culture which understands that science and medical breakthroughs should work for ordinary people, and not just enrich large corporations and CEOs?" he continued.
Sanders urged people "to remember the contributions of great scientists like Dr. Jonas Salk who, in the 1950s, invented the vaccine for polio. Salk's work saved millions of lives and prevented millions more from being paralyzed."
According to the progressive lawmaker: "It has been estimated that if Dr. Salk had chosen to patent the polio vaccine he would have made billions of dollars. But he did not. When asked who owns the patent to this vaccine Dr. Salk said: 'Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?' What Dr. Salk understood was that the purpose of the vaccine he invented was to save lives, not to make himself obscenely rich."
Salk was not alone, as Sanders explained:
In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a scientist from Scotland, discovered penicillin at St. Mary's hospital in London. Fleming's discovery of penicillin changed the medical world and saved millions of lives.
When Fleming was asked about his role, he did not talk about the outrageous fortune he could have made through his discovery. Instead, he said: "I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident." He refused to make obscene profits from his discovery.
In 1921, Dr. Frederick Banting along with two other scientists at the University of Toronto invented insulin—an issue we're hearing a lot about today. When Dr. Banting was asked why he wouldn't patent insulin and why he sold the rights to insulin for just $1 he replied: “Insulin does not belong to me. It belongs to the world.”
It has been estimated that Dr. Banting's invention saved some 300 million lives. Once again, a great scientist made it clear that his purpose in life was to ease suffering and save human lives, not to make billions for himself.
"In this moment of excessive corporate greed," said Sanders, "the moral vision of these great scientists is something that we might learn from."
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams and was authored by Kenny Stancil.