Sanders’ opening remarks at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on drug pricing.
COST OF DRUGS - First, let me thank Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, for being with us today and all of the other panelists who have joined us. Mr. Bancel early on agreed to be here voluntarily and I very much appreciate that.
Secondly, I want to congratulate Moderna, Pfizer, other companies, and the great scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies for their extraordinary work in rapidly producing COVID vaccines that have saved millions of lives.
This hearing, to my mind, is about several enormously important and inter-related issues.
1) 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 percent 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.
2) 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 ten times more. Unbelievably, there are important drugs on the market today that literally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. My question is: What does a lifesaving drug mean for a person who cannot afford to buy that drug?
3) Now, in terms of Moderna, the focus of our attention this morning, let’s be clear. The 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 re-write history, it is widely acknowledged that both Moderna and the NIH created this vaccine together.
According to a letter I received from the NIH on March 17th, and which has been distributed to all members, three scientists at the NIH “are co-inventors” of this vaccine who were “integral members of a collaborative team of scientists working to design and produce” it.
In other words, 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.
And here is the thank you the taxpayers of this country received from Moderna for that huge investment: They are 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.
What this means is that Moderna will be charging Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, the Department of Defense, the Indian Health Service and insurance plans on the Affordable Care Act billions of dollars more for the COVID vaccine.
Meanwhile, 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.
As soon as Moderna started to receive billions of dollars from the federal government, Mr. Bancel literally became a billionaire overnight and is now worth $4.7 billion. He was also able to secure a golden parachute for himself worth another $926 million after he leaves this company.
But let’s be clear. Mr. Bancel is not alone.
One of Moderna’s co-founders (Noubar Afeyan) is now worth $1.8 billion. Another co-founder of Moderna, Robert Langer, is now worth $1.7 billion. And one of the founding investors in Moderna (Tim Springer) is now worth $2.2 billion.
None of these four individuals were billionaires before the taxpayers of our country funded the COVID-19 vaccine.
This type of profiteering and excessive CEO compensation is exactly what the American people are sick and tired of. And that is why, this morning, I will be asking Moderna to reconsider their decision to quadruple the price of this vaccine and not raise the price at all.
Let me mention that after this hearing was announced, Moderna pledged that its “vaccines and boosters will continue to be available at no cost for the vast majority of people in the United States” through the creation of a patient assistance program. That is good news.
The bad news is that most patient assistance programs are poorly designed and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for patients to access. 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. In other words, let us truly make this vaccine available for free to all Americans.
Let me conclude by posing a moral question that I hope this committee will address in the weeks and months to come. And that is, above and beyond the COVID vaccine 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? And, in that respect, it is important 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.
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.
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, the moral vision of these great scientists is something that we might learn from.
(Bernie Sanders is a US Senator, and the ranking member of the Senate budget committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress. This article was first published in CounterPunch.org.)