Critics worry pharmaceutical companies may benefit from public research funds, yet raise prices for potential COVID-19 vaccine
  • Advocacy groups urge the U.S. government to disclose information about a taxpayer-funded venture to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in collaboration with the private sector.
  • Public Citizen and other groups have raised concerns that pharmaceutical companies may be able to sell medicine at an elevated price.
  • ESG investors have encouraged companies to consider all stakeholders, including their customers who have to pay rising drug prices.

Advocacy groups don’t want Operation Warp Speed — the taxpayer-funded venture to develop a COVID-19 treatment in collaboration with the private sector — to move so fast that the U.S. government doesn’t disclose details about it or dispel concerns about potential pharmaceutical profiteering.

In an attempt to speed the drug-discovery process to combat the deadly coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump in May directed several U.S. agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, to work jointly with pharmaceutical companies to develop 300 million doses of a vaccine to be made available to Americans by January.

However, consumer groups, such as the Washington-based Accountable.US, are now raising concerns about what they say is a lack of transparency surrounding the government-led initiative that enables pharmaceutical companies to tap into millions of dollars in taxpayer funding without safeguards in place to ensure the development of safe, effective and affordable drugs. The group has launched the campaign Patients Over Pharma and is calling for the White House and agencies including the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to disclose their deals with companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna.

“With billions of taxpayer dollars and the health of hundreds of millions of Americans at stake, the Trump Administration needs to stop shrouding ‘Operation Warp Speed’ in secrecy,” Eli Zupnick, Patients Over Pharma spokesman said in a written statement.

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson told Karma that company contracts can only be obtained from the government through Freedom of Information Act requests and sensitive business information will be redacted. If drugs developed in Operation Warp Speed are commercialized, then the government will seek “consideration for pricing based on support from the U.S. government in the development of the product,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile the advocacy group Public Citizen estimates the pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Inc. benefitted from about $70.5 million in public funding for the development of Remdesivir, one of several drugs that has shown promise in the fight against COVID-19. The group is urging Gilead to price the drug at $1 and is asking the Food and Drug Administration to disclose information related to the licensing and manufacturing agreement for the medicine.

Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen’s director for its access to medicines program, says the government and pharmaceutical companies need to be accountable to the public to prevent suffering.

“If you let companies go by business as usual, then the world is going to go without a vaccine for a long period of time,” Maybarduk told Karma. “That would cost the world trillions of dollars in lost productivity and it will also cost people their lives.”

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