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Don’t care about drug prices? Wait until you or someone you know gets COVID-19.

by Resurgent Insider Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Lots of traditional three-legged stool conservatives have found themselves less irate about drug pricing in recent years that the swath of populist, Trumpite voters that now dominate much of the party’s base.

However, as more Americans get COVID-19 – and are presented with the option of going with a pricey treatment and getting better faster or going without something that may prove unaffordable for too many and suffering for weeks or months – attitudes towards drug pricing could shift in an even more negative direction. This trend would likely be driven by those who haven’t already been riled up on the issue for years: People who probably considered themselves more in line with Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell and more ostensibly “free marketeer” than Donald Trump or Sen. Chuck Grassley or populist figures from previous iterations of the GOP like former Gov. Mike Huckabee or even former Sen. John McCain.

Recently, pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences was given approval to market anti-COVID-19 drug remdesivir.

But only this week did details of Gilead’s proposed pricing of the drug emerge.

No surprise: Gilead, which has led the fight against efforts to constrain rising drug prices including through mechanisms like Grassley’s drug pricing proposals and the no-taxpayer-funding 340B drug discount program, is pricing remdesivir at an eyeball-popping price.

The drug will cost $2,340 for a typical five-day course of treatment.

For some patients, however, that might be the cheap end of the drug price spectrum.

According to Bloomberg News, “a minority of patients need 10 days of treatment, or 11 vials, which would bring the total cost up to $4,290.” 

Many of those who have been put through the wringer by COVID-19 say that any cost is worth it to beat the illness – whether it’s a $1 million hospital bill for a patient kept on a respirator for many days, or thousands for a several-days-long course of drugs.

However, the price tag affixed by Gilead will likely strike some people as just another rapacious move by a company known for inducing sticker shock with other lifesaving drugs like anti-HIV drug Truvada.

Truvada’s US list price as of 2019 ran at about $2,000 per month or $24,000 per year.

Gilead’s Truvada pricing strikes critics as cashing in on an illness strongly associated with the opioid crisis that has hit Trump country especially hard.

Now, COVID-19 seems to be moving out of big, wealthier, Eastern seaboard population centers like New York City and into the poorer heartland at the same time the drugmaker is announcing multi-thousand-dollar-pricing for remdesivir.

Some progressive groups, such as Public Citizen, have argued that the drug could be priced at “$1 a day based on calculations that it could be manufactured at scale by generic drugmakers for this amount.”

That price point seems ridiculous, given that Gilead did plow plenty of money – and fast – into developing the drug amid the pressure of the pandemic.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Gilead wouldn’t see significant profit off remdesivir at a price half that it plans to charge.

Given the economic downturn which has, in turn, seriously and adversely affected personal finances across the U.S., it would seem like a smart public relations move for the drugmaker to set the price lower, especially as many patients do require more than a five-day course of treatment.

Expect President Trump to keep an eye on this, and even more so, for Sen. Grassley to scrutinize it. Bashing Big Pharma and high drug prices was an electoral winner for Trump in 2016, and Grassley has long been committed to the issue, knowing how it plays in rural Iowa which needs to turn out en masse for his colleague Sen. Joni Ernst who is currently locked in a tough re-election battle and needs all the support she can get.


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