Opinion column: Don’t forfeit our best weapon against fighting diseases


Tommy Thompson Guest columnist

Tommy Thompson Guest columnist


Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and several senior House lawmakers recently announced a plan to impose price controls and seize patents on any COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in development. They vowed to strike down any emergency stimulus packages excluding such measures.

Those efforts aren’t just misguided – they pose a threat to the health of Americans. If lawmakers succeed, they would dismantle the innovation ecosystem that has enabled U.S. pharmaceutical firms to move with remarkable speed to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

COVID-19 has served as an unprecedented call-to-action for both the public and private sectors to work together on a variety of urgent, immediate and future needs of the 350 million relying on our leaders.

Already, leading scientists are predicting as many as 20 vaccines that will be successfully developed for COVID-19, early and promising evidence that the massive demand has produced an aggressive response within bio-industries. High demand and vigorous competition will produce the best possible value among the varied providers of the vaccine – a value that will translate into high-quality vaccines at competitive prices, without the need for government intervention.

Gilead Sciences, a firm headquartered in California, has already launched five clinical trials for its antiviral remdesivir, a drug that could help treat infected patients. Moderna, a Massachusetts biotech, set a record by identifying a vaccine candidate for COVID-19 just 42 days after scientists sequenced the virus’s genetic code. The first clinical trial began in early March.

Our dominance in medical innovation isn’t an accident. It’s the direct result of America’s market-driven approach to drug development – an approach that is now under attack in Washington.

Rep. Schakowsky’s plan is just the latest in a series of price control measures proposed by Congress. Take H.R.3, which passed the House in December. The legislation, if enacted, would allow the government to impose price controls in Medicare. This would obliterate the incentive to invest in new drug research.

Companies spend over $2 billion to bring each new drug to market. That process is so expensive because it’s fraught with failure. Fewer than 12 percent of drugs that make it to clinical trials ever earn approval.

The risks are worthwhile provided a successful drug has a chance at earning back its upfront cost. It’s this expectation that makes America’s model so successful.

Conversely, when the government arbitrarily sets prices, the chances of recouping a drug’s R&D investments fall drastically. Funding for new research becomes scarce, and innovation suffers.

This is Europe’s story. In the 1970s, four European countries produced more than half of all new drugs. After price-control policies became the norm there, the contribution of these countries shrank to just a third, with America surging to the head of the pack.

Policymakers today premise their proposals on the idea that drug development is funded by taxpayers and the innovation ecosystem is somehow broken. The COVID-19 pandemic reveals these views to be backwards.

Contrast today’s would-be reformers with those of just a few decades ago. When I was with the Bush administration, we worked with Democrats to modernize Medicare and make drugs affordable for patients without harming R&D.

A market-based model for drug development has made America the world’s indispensable source of medical innovation. Let’s go back to how things used to be – ensuring bipartisan support for innovations that can save humanity from global health threats like COVID-19.

Tommy Thompson Guest columnist
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Tommy G. Thompson is the former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and former Governor of Wisconsin.

Tommy G. Thompson is the former Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and former Governor of Wisconsin.