Gordon S. Jones: Private investment was key for COVID-19 vaccine

Bill to lower the cost of drugs would cripple the development of new medicines.

(Paul Sancya | AP file photo) In this Jan. 5 photo, a health care worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot in Southfield, Mich.

In 1963, Maurice Hilleman, a scientist at Merck, was asleep in his bedroom when his daughter woke him, complaining of a sore throat. After noticing that her jaw was swollen, Hilleman swabbed her throat and rushed to his lab. Four years later, his mumps vaccine was saving lives.

This was the fastest a vaccine had ever been developed. Until now.

COVID-19 researchers obliterated Hilleman’s record last year. Scientists brought one of the vaccines from lab to jab in less than 10 months. The two others approved for use in the United States took less than a year.

The speedy development of these vaccines was largely thanks to a policy environment that has long fostered private investment in medical innovation.

The benefits are obvious. In Utah, restaurants have returned to full capacity — though, unfortunately not soon enough to save my beloved Café Berlin. And practically every public school is operating with in-person classes, as is Mount Liberty College, where I teach. More importantly, Utah’s COVID-19 related deaths have gone from a high of 26 per day to an average of less than one.

Unfortunately, if some members of Congress have their way, the pioneering biopharmaceutical research that has produced this result will come to a halt.

Recently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi re-introduced a measure first considered in 2019 called the Lower Drug Costs Now Act. The bill endeavors to lower U.S. drug prices on medicines covered by Medicare by importing the price controls that keep drug prices down in foreign countries.

Superficially, it’s easy to see the appeal. Why should medications developed in American labs cost more here than in other countries? But setting prices by government diktat would have a devastating effect on funding available to develop new cures.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a Pelosi-style measure could divert as much as $1 trillion away from medical research over the next decade. One analysis found it would derail the development of at least 61 new drugs over the same time frame.

It costs an average $2.6 billion to bring a single new drug from the lab to approval for patient use. With their cheaper prices, other countries are free-riding on the American pharmaceutical innovation that produces two in three new medicines worldwide.

The sensible solution here is to demand they pay their fair share of the cost of developing treatments from which they benefit. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative should take a more proactive role in trade enforcement, holding other nations accountable for the promises they’ve made. Drying up funds for medical research is the last thing we should be doing right now.

Consider the possibilities flowing from mRNA technology, which underpins the COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. Scientists are hopeful that the added mRNA knowledge base from COVID-19 vaccine development will lead to the accelerated creation of new prevention therapies for illnesses ranging from HIV to multiple sclerosis and even some types of cancer.

The benefits of privately funded biopharmaceutical research can be measured not only in lives saved, but also in economic impact. More than 73,000 Utahans are employed directly or indirectly by biopharmaceutical research firms. Those companies have produced $17.3 billion in goods and services, and paid $873 million in federal and state taxes.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is considered a crucial vote in the U.S. Senate when it comes to debates over drug costs and proposals to institute price caps on pharmaceuticals. To his credit, he has established a strong track record of defending innovators and supporting medical research and development. As the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, Romney recognized that less government interference was crucial to spur investment in pharmaceutical innovation and create life-saving new drugs.

In order for medical researchers to develop the next generation of cures, it is crucial that Romney and other clear-thinking lawmakers work overtime to preserve the incentive structure for private biopharmaceutical R&D investment.

Millions of lives around the world are being saved because of the lightning-fast development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines using technologies created by American drug makers. If members of Congress fail to defend the system that allowed for that research to take place, the world won’t be as lucky when the next global health crisis hits.

Gordon S. Jones | Mount Liberty College

Gordon S. Jones, a long-time policy analyst for both the House of Representatives and the Senate, is founder and faculty at Mount Liberty College, Murray.