How drug manufacturers have gone from vaccinated heroes to patent criminals in a matter of weeks

When Joe Biden visited Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, earlier this year, his visit seemed to mark a thaw in relations between Washington and major pharmaceutical companies.

“I wanted to come here, Albert, to thank you and to thank all the workers here,” said the president of the United States. said Albert Bourla, Chief executive of Pfizer, February.

Weeks later, Bourla was given a suit by Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, during a call to discuss whether the administration should support a move to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

The tone of that call, followed by the decision in support of a proposed waiver of patents to the World Trade Organization, it has sparked concerns among some in the pharmaceutical industry, who fear losing the political capital accumulated during the pandemic at a crucial moment in its fight against drug price controls in the United States.

“One day Bourla is taken by the president to make vaccines that help end it pandemic, the next was conferred by one of Biden’s senior officials for not providing vaccines in India – although the Pfizer vaccine has not been approved here, ”said one person who informed him about the call. it shook the industry a little bit. ”

American drug addicts have been the target of political criticism for years, accused of fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic and making their treatments inaccessible to millions of Americans.

Many in the industry have hoped that their response to the pandemic will help convince politicians and the wider public that the United States benefits from having a well-funded pharmaceutical industry with strong intellectual property rights. The country has realized one of the the fastest of Covid-19 vaccines in the world, mostly thanks to stable supplies from Pfizer and its smaller rival Modern.

“The Covid-19 vaccine is a test point for the powerful combination of advanced science and the private sector,” said Sally Susman, Pfizer’s chief business officer.

The public agrees. Inquiry performed by The Harris Poll found that pharmaceutical industry approvals had nearly doubled from 32 percent in January last year to 62 percent in February this year.

But the decision to support the WTO move to waive international intellectual property rights over Covid vaccines suggests that the Biden administration is not fully convinced by the arguments proposed by the army of well-funded lobbyists. and drugs.

“The fact that the Biden administration is willing to support the waiver shows that the argument has changed and that the pharmaceutical industry will not be as strong as it was in the past,” said Michael Carrier, professor of human rights law. Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

The industry spends much more on lobbying than any other – more than $ 92 million this year, according to figures compiled by the Washington Center for Reactive Policy. It is more than double the cost from the electronics industry, which is the next heaviest spender.

It also gives freely, and more and more to Democrats. CRP figures show that 2020 was the first year in which the industry gave much more to Democratic candidates than Republican ones.

Pfizer has donated $ 1m to the inaugural Biden fund, although the money has not bought the kind of high-level access it would have done in previous years due to the virtual nature of many inaugural events.

Steve Ubl, the president of Phrma, second from the left, pictured here meeting Donald Trump in 2017, is the industry’s most important lobbyist. Some leaders fear he is too associated with Republicans to make incursions into democratically controlled Congress and administration. © Getty Images

The industry is preoccupied primarily with two issues in Washington: the WTO’s proposed intellectual property waiver and legislation to curb drug prices. At first, companies are willing to limit the scope of any waiver. At the latter, they want to plant a project that will allow the government to negotiate the prices of certain drugs prescribed to seniors covered by the publicly funded Medicare scheme.

The industry’s most important voice on these issues is Steve Ubl, general manager of the Phrma industry group and a veteran Washington operator. “The Biden administration has taken a politically expedient decision [on the WTO waiver], but we think we are still able to tap into other debates like the price of the drug, ”he said.

Some have worried that Ubl, a former aide to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, is too obviously corporate and Republican to make democratically controlled incursions into the administration and Congress.

However, some say Michelle McMurry-Heath, the chief executive of the smallest Organization for Biotechnology Innovation, could be more successful. “Steve has been very successful for years, but Michelle is a little more dynamic and less pushy,” said an industry lobbyist.

Those in the industry who have deep connections in the Democratic party are in high demand, such as Susman, who worked as a senior official in the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration.

Another is Debra Dixon, former chief of staff to health secretary Xavier Becerra. Dixon works for Ferox Strategies and was recently recruited by Eli Lilly, who has been criticized for raising his insulin prices.

Dixon said the industry should focus on how therapeutics can “alleviate health disparities” when discussing drug prices.

He added: “While the launch of U.S. vaccines has gone well, there are still people falling through the cracks. Before we rush to make the waiver of the WTO, maybe we should first have our own home in order. ”

Meanwhile, Modern has hired Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck as one of its outside lobbying firms. His team includes Nadeam Elshami, the former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives, and Carmencita Whonder, former assistant to Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic Senate majority.

There is some sign that their efforts are paying off.

Earlier this month 10 Democrats in the House he sent a letter to Pelosi who urged them to pursue drug pricing reforms on a bipartisan basis. This message was interpreted as a critique of the government’s proposal to negotiate drug prices, which has little support among Republicans.

Scott Peters, the main signatory of this letter, was the sixth highest recipient in the House of Money from the pharmaceutical industry in the last election cycle, according to the CRP.

Others in Congress also continue to defend the industry, particularly those in New Jersey and Delaware, where many pharmaceutical companies have a significant presence. Industry lobbyists say they expect Chris Coons, the Delaware senator and a lifelong friend of Biden, to prove a vital ally.

Many lobbyists hope Biden will be receptive to the industry’s arguments, in part because he has worked closely with pharmaceutical companies as vice president while developing his “cancer moon” to help find a cure for the disease.

But they don’t necessarily need to win the president’s round. With the two houses of Congress finely balanced, a handful of Democratic supporters could crush the reforms proposed by those on the left of the party.

“We don’t need many people to block HR3,” said an industry lobbyist, referring to the bill that would allow the government to negotiate some price for the drug. “The 10 people who signed that letter may be enough to get what we want.”

Swamp notes

Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce discuss major issues at the intersection of money and power in U.S. politics every Monday and Friday. Subscribe to the newsletter here

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