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Bernie Sanders calls Moderna’s CEO to testify about proposed vaccine price increase


Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to grill Moderna’s CEO about his reported plans to raise the price of the coronavirus vaccine at a Senate hearing next month, which Sanders hopes will convince the company to course to reverse.

The hearing will be an important part of Sanders’ larger oversight agenda for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee of which he chairs. The former presidential candidate hopes to use his place on the panel to highlight the “greed” of major drug companies in an effort to lower prescription drug prices.

Senate Democrats have signaled they will focus their expanded majorities on corporate outreach as House Republicans on the other side of the Capitol launch investigations into China, alleged FBI abuses, treatment by tech companies from a 2020 story about President Biden’s son, Hunter, and other targets.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said shortly after last year’s midterm elections that “corporate corruption and inequality” would be a major focus for his caucus, and other committees have already held hearings on alleged anti-competitive practices of Ticketmaster and abuse of the cryptocurrency industry.

In an interview, Sanders said Moderna, whose only federally approved drug is the coronavirus vaccine that the company received nearly $2 billion in direct federal money to develop is a “poster child” for the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. He plans to claim that CEO Stéphane Bancel, who is worth more than $5 billion according to Forbes, and several other Moderna executives “benefited” from the pandemic.

“We’re going to ask them, ‘Hey, you made billions of dollars in profit on a vaccine that was developed thanks to taxpayer support. [National Institutes of Health], you’ve become a multi-billionaire, and you think it’s appropriate to cost the federal government even more money by quadrupling prices? Sanders said. “And I hope, I really hope, that these people will reconsider this outrageous decision and decide not to raise the prices for the vaccine.”

Bancel told the Wall Street Journal last month that he was considering quadrupling the price of the Moderna vaccine to as much as $130 per dose once the federal government depletes its supply and insurers and individuals are responsible for purchasing it themselves. Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has bought vaccines and provided them for free, and Moderna sold its booster shots to the government for about $25 per dose.

On Wednesday, after its CEO agreed to appear before the HELP committee, Moderna announced a new “patient assistance program” starting in May that will provide millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans with the vaccine for free. “Everyone in the United States will have access to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of their ability to pay,” spokesman Chris Ridley said in a statement.

Moderna, which did not describe how the patient assistance program would work, also noted that insured patients will continue to receive the vaccine for free through their insurance regardless of price increases.

The announcement takes some of the sting out of one of Sanders’ main criticisms of Moderna – that uninsured Americans would find the injections that helped fund their tax dollars prohibitively expensive. But Sanders has also argued that the higher vaccine price for insurers — and Medicare and Medicaid — would further drive up medical costs, and taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill. (Pfizer is also considering a similar price hike for its vaccine, but Sanders said his case is different because it hasn’t received the same federal investment in its research.)

Sanders, who is chairing the HELP committee for the first time this year, declined to say who else he plans to call to his committee, but broadly claimed there is a “morality crisis” within the pharmaceutical industry and support across the political spectrum for putting pharmaceutical CEOs in the hot seat and addressing the problem of high prescription drug prices. He also expressed concern about how Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, are handling union efforts at their companies — and left the door open to question them as well.

“The pharmaceutical industry is politically very powerful,” he said. “There are 535 members of Congress and that’s 1,700 [lobbyists] including former Democratic Party leaders, Republican Party leaders. They are everywhere. They’re swarming over Capitol Hill.”

Sanders did not rule out compelling witnesses to appear before the committee via subpoena in the future, which Senate Democrats won when they won a 51st seat in the November election. A report prepared by his Democratic committee staff cited the wages of the CEOs of drug companies including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AbbVie and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals — as well as five other Moderna investors and executives — as examples of “profiteers from a pharmaceutical pandemic” .

“We didn’t have to use a subpoena and he’s coming in voluntarily and I appreciate that,” Sanders said of Bancel, due March 22. will use subpoena power.

Sanders said he believes Republicans will support his focus on pharmaceutical greed. But the leading Republican on his committee, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), told The Washington Post this month that he wanted to hear more from Pfizer and Moderna before he passed away. judgment on their decision to raise prices.

“Of course you have a marginal cost. It’s easier to spread marginal costs over billions of doses than millions of doses,” Cassidy said. “And what is their justification for all this? I just don’t know. … Give me more details before I give an opinion.”

Cassidy has said that drug affordability is important, but that “we need to understand that there is a profit-driven component to innovation.”

Sanders also acknowledges that other members of his committee may use the forum to raise doubts about the vaccine’s efficacy or safety.

But Sanders said he plans to use the hearing to tell a bigger story about past scientific pioneers, including Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, and Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, contrasting their selfless decisions. not to apply for a patent or make a profit. Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s a really profound moral issue,” he said.

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