Preventing Pandemic Profiteering

Daniel Takash —  2 April 2020

[TOTM: The following is part of a blog series by TOTM guests and authors on the law, economics, and policy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The entire series of posts is available here.

This post is authored by Daniel Takash,(Regulatory policy fellow at the Niskanen Center. He is the manager of Niskanen’s Captured Economy Project,, and you can follow him @danieltakash or @capturedecon).]

The pharmaceutical industry should be one of the most well-regarded industries in America. It helps bring drugs to market that improve, and often save, people’s lives. Yet last year a Gallup poll found that of 25 major industries, the pharmaceutical industry was the most unpopular– trailing behind fossil fuels, lawyers, and even the federal government. The opioid crisis dominated the headlines for the past few years, but the high price of drugs is a top-of-mind issue that generates significant animosity toward the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of high drug prices are felt not just at every trip to the pharmacy, but also by those who are priced out of life-saving treatments. Many Americans simply can’t afford what their doctors prescribe. The pharmaceutical industry helps save lives, but it’s also been credibly accused of anticompetitive behavior–not just from generics, but even other brand manufacturers.

These extraordinary times are an opportunity to right the ship. AbbVie, roundly criticized for building a patent thicket around Humira, has donated its patent rights to a promising COVID-19 treatment. This is to be celebrated– yet pharma’s bad reputation is defined by its worst behaviors and the frequent apologetics for overusing the patent system. Hopefully corporate social responsibility will prevail, and such abuses will cease in the future.

The most effective long-term treatment for COVID-19 will be a vaccine. We also need drugs to treat those afflicted with COVID-19 to improve recovery and lower mortality rates for those that get sick before a vaccine is developed and widely available. This requires rapid drug development through effective public-private partnerships to bring these treatments to market.

Without a doubt, these solutions will come from the pharmaceutical industry. Increased funding for the National Institutes for Health, nonprofit research institutions, and private pharmaceutical researchers are likely needed to help accelerate the development of these treatments. But we must be careful to ensure whatever necessary upfront public support is given to these entities results in a fair trade-off for Americans. The U.S. taxpayer is one of the largest investors in early to mid-stage drug research, and we need to make sure that we are a good investor.

Basic research into the costs of drug development, especially when taxpayer subsidies are involved, is a necessary start. This is a feature of the We PAID Act, introduced by Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to enter into a contract with the National Academy of Medicine to figure the reasonable price of drugs developed with taxpayer support. This reasonable price would include a suitable reward to the private companies that did the important work of finishing drug development and gaining FDA approval. This is important, as setting a price too low would reduce investments in indispensable research and development. But this must be balanced with the risk of using patents to charge prices above and beyond those necessary to finance research, development, and commercialization.

A little sunshine can go a long way. We should trust that pharmaceutical companies will develop a vaccine and treatments or coronavirus, but we must also verify these are affordable and accessible through public scrutiny. Take the drug manufacturer Gilead Science’s about-face on its application for orphan drug status on the possible COVID-19 treatment remdesivir. Remedesivir, developed in part with public funds and already covered by three Gilead patents, technically satisfied the definition of “orphan drug,” as COVID-19 (at the time of the application) afflicted fewer than 200,000 patents. In a pandemic that could infect tens of millions of Americans, this designation is obviously absurd, and public outcry led to Gilead to ask the FDA to rescind the application. Gilead claimed it sought the designation to speed up FDA review, and that might be true. Regardless, public attention meant that the FDA will give Gilead’s drug Remdesivir expedited review without Gilead needing a designation that looks unfair to the American people.

The success of this isolated effort is absolutely worth celebrating. But we need more research to better comprehend the pharmaceutical industry’s needs, and this is just what the study provisions of We PAID would provide.

There is indeed some existing research on this front. For example,the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) estimates it costs an average of $2.6 billion to bring a new drug to market, and research from the Journal of the American Medical Association finds this average to be closer to $1.3 billion, with the median cost of development to be $985 million.

But a thorough analysis provided under We PAID is the best way for us to fully understand just how much support the pharmaceutical industry needs, and just how successful it has been thus far. The NIH, one of the major sources of publicly funded research, invests about $41.7 billion annually in medical research. We need to better understand how these efforts link up, and how the torch is passed from public to private efforts.

Patents are essential to the functioning of the pharmaceutical industry by incentivizing drug development through temporary periods of exclusivity. But it is equally essential, in light of the considerable investment already made by taxpayers in drug research and development, to make sure we understand the effects of these incentives and calibrate them to balance the interests of patients and pharmaceutical companies. Most drugs require research funding from both public and private sources as well as patent protection. And the U.S. is one of the biggest investors of drug research worldwide (even compared to drug companies), yet Americans pay the highest prices in the world. Are these prices justified, and can we improve patent policy to bring these costs down without harming innovation?

Beyond a thorough analysis of drug pricing, what makes We PAID one of the most promising solutions to the problem of excessively high drug prices are the accountability mechanisms included. The bill, if made law, would establish a Drug Access and Affordability Committee. The Committee would use the methodology from the joint HHS and NAM study to determine a reasonable price for affected drugs (around 20 percent of drugs currently on the market, if the bill were law today). Any companies that price drugs granted exclusivity by a patent above the reasonable price would lose their exclusivity.

This may seem like a price control at first blush, but it isn’t–for two reasons. First, this only applies to drugs developed with taxpayer dollars, which any COVID-19 treatments or cures almost certainly would be considering the $785 million spent by the NIH since 2002 researching coronaviruses. It’s an accountability mechanism that would ensure the government is getting its money’s worth. This tool is akin to ensuring that a government contractor is not charging more than would be reasonable, lest it loses its contract.

Second, it is even less stringent than pulling a contract with a private firm overcharging the government for the services provided. Why? Losing a patent does not mean losing the ability to make a drug, or any other patented invention for that matter.This basic fact is often lost in the patent debate, but it cannot be stressed enough.

If patents functioned as licenses, then every patent expiration would mean another product going off the market. In reality, that means that any other firm can compete and use the patented design. Even if a firm violated the price regulations included in the bill and lost its patent, it could continue manufacturing the drug. And so could any other firm, bringing down prices for all consumers by opening up market competition.

The We PAID Act could be a dramatic change for the drug industry, and because of that many in Congress may want to first debate the particulars of the bill. This is fine, assuming  this promising legislation isn’t watered down beyond recognition. But any objections to the Drug Affordability and Access Committee and reasonable pricing regulations aren’t an excuse to not, at a bare minimum, pass the study included in the bill as part of future coronavirus packages, if not sooner. It is an inexpensive way to get good information in a single, reputable source that would allow us to shape good policy.

Good information is needed for good policy. When the government lays the groundwork for future innovations by financing research and development, it can be compared to a venture capitalist providing the financing necessary for an innovative product or service. But just like in the private sector, the government should know what it’s getting for its (read: taxpayers’) money and make recipients of such funding accountable to investors.

The COVID-19 outbreak will be the most pressing issue for the foreseeable future, but determining how pharmaceuticals developed with public research are priced is necessary in good times and bad. The final prices for these important drugs might be fair, but the public will never know without a trusted source examining this information. Trust, but verify. The pharmaceutical industry’s efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic might be the first step to improving Americans’ relationship with the industry. But we need good information to make that happen. Americans need to know when they are being treated fairly, and that policymakers are able to protect them when they are treated unfairly. The government needs to become a better-informed investor, and that won’t happen without something like the We PAID Act.