Trump is enlisting Big Pharma to stem the coronavirus crisis

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As confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to rise, President Donald Trump has quickly embraced the pharmaceutical industry he once vilified for its high prices. The industry has, in turn, jumped on the opportunity. 

COVID-19 has killed at least 19 in the U.S. and infected more than 400. It’s also rattled the stock market that Trump will likely use as the centerpiece of his reelection campaign in 2020. 

The crisis is throwing together the pharmaceutical industry and Trump as unlikely bedfellows: The pharma industry is seeking to get back in the administration’s good graces, while Trump is hoping it will help stop the damage.

On Monday, Trump hosted executives from Gilead Sciences, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Moderna, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi to discuss efforts to create a vaccine and therapeutics. 

“Today, we are meeting with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies — the biggest in the world, most prestigious, the ones that get down to the bottom line very quickly,” Trump declared at the meeting’s onset. 

As the meeting closed, Trump called out J&J and Pfizer as being among the “greatest in the world,” nearly two years after his tweet that Pfizer  “should be ashamed” of itself raising its prices. He’s also threatened to implement a drug pricing plan the industry is trying to stave off.

Drug companies have for years argued that higher list prices are needed to help pay for important research and development. Critics have said the revenue they’ve generated by increasing the price of their drugs far exceeds that which they spend on research.

While meeting with Trump, pharmaceutical executives sought to hammer the point that they are well prepared for the crisis, because of the money they’ve already invested in R&D, said two people familiar with the industry’s strategy. That message came with the implicit defense of their business model and pushback against regulation.

“They’re trying to make that subtle point of: ‘you can’t tie one arm behind our back,'” said one of the people. 

Already, efforts to by some members of Congress to add in certain vaccine pricing limits to the $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending package were thwarted. Some of the debate was hinged on “march-in rights,” which declare that the government has the right to take an intellectual property patent if you can trace the drug’s development to federally funded research, people familiar with the discussions said. 

The final bill did restate a “fair and reasonable” provision that gives the HHS secretary responsibility for ensuring vaccines are affordable in the commercial market.   

“I am happy we have a mandate to ensure that Big Pharma must offer a ‘fair and reasonable’ price for any coronavirus diagnostics, vaccines, or treatments that they are selling to the federal government,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said in a statement when the bill passed Congress. 

“I am disappointed that Republicans folded to Big Pharma and prevented us from including a clause that would have prevented drug manufacturers from pricing a vaccine or treatment out of reach in the commercial market as well.”

The bill, which Trump signed Friday, siphons more than $3 billion to the research and development of vaccines, as well as therapeutics and diagnostics.

Pharmaceutical companies, meantime, have said they do not make money in outbreaks. 

Ron Klain, who was former President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar,” last month echoed that sentiment in a panel at the Aspen Institute, saying that while he is “not like a drug company fan,” there is “no question that a lot of them lost a lot of money trying to produce an Ebola vaccine.”

Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer has told CNBC the company is committed to making the coronavirus vaccine it is working on affordable for patients. 

“It doesn’t do us any good, if we want to save lives, to make something that’s not affordable,” he said. “We will make this drug affordable.” 

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