Arizona was once the deadliest Covid hotspot in the country. Now, with close to two-thirds of all residents having received at least one Covid vaccine dose, cases are sharply declining. Businesses are reopening, and vaccinated friends and family can gather without fretting over masks. The good news comes thanks to the relentless effort and ingenuity of American scientists.
Vaccine development is usually a long and arduous process. The fact that Moderna and Pfizer developed their Covid vaccines in less than a year is astonishing. Previously, the record for fastest development belonged to the mumps vaccine, which still took four years.
The speedy arrival of relief has proven especially critical for our vulnerable populations. Communities of color across the country have been disproportionately affected by Covid – and Arizona is no exception. We have the second-highest Hispanic mortality rate in the nation.
The more Arizonans who get these life-saving vaccines, the more protection we’ll afford not only to ourselves – but to the most at-risk among us.
Covid vaccines also hold the key to unlocking therapies for a range of debilitating diseases. The breakthrough messenger ribonucleic acid or “mRNA” technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines is especially promising. Moderna is already working on personalized cancer vaccines using mRNA. Other companies are exploring applications for multiple sclerosis, HIV and Alzheimer’s.
Think of what it would mean to have a cure or effective prevention method for Alzheimer’s, one of the leading causes of death in our state. Opening this vista on medical innovation, however, depends on whether Congress can avoid enacting legislation that would undermine what makes it possible. Lawmakers are looking to lower the cost of new medications – a worthy goal, to be sure. But the effort that’s attracting the most support could have ruinous consequences.
House Democrats recently revived H.R. 3 – a bill that could effectively introduce price controls in the United States. Costs here would be tied to the lower prices paid in other developed countries with government-run health systems, like Canada and the UK.
Here’s the problem: developing new treatments and vaccines requires an average investment of nearly $3 billion to take a drug from a lab to the pharmacy. Price controls on medications could make it all but impossible for investors to recoup such large sums. Inevitably, investment will dry up. Indeed, if legislation along these lines passes, one prominent health care consultancy group estimated that 56 fewer new medications would make their way to patients in the next decade. Those could include cutting-edge treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, MS, and HIV.
America’s innovative ecosystem put our scientists in a great position to cope with the present pandemic. If it falls to ruin, we will be in no condition to respond to the next public health crisis.
There are better ways to bring costs down, like encouraging the kind of competition that has brought down prices in almost every other technological industry. Or – perhaps even more effectual – taking aim at middlemen in the drug supply chain. As the system stands, insurers task pharmacy benefit managers – known as PBMs – with hammering out the specifics of their plans. PBMs engage in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to secure significant discounts and rebates on medicines.
While the savings are substantial, patients rarely see a dime reduction in their pharmacy bills. Insurers and PBMs aren’t obligated to account for them when calculating patients’ out-of-pocket cost-sharing responsibilities – like copays – for medicines. A new rule, however, could change that. It would require these middlemen to share negotiated savings directly with patients at the point of sale. That could help remove financial barriers to medication access, without throwing a wrench in the pursuit of biomedical breakthroughs.
When push comes to shove on price controls, our Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema would do well to remember how medical innovation rescued Arizona in its time of need.
Dr. Kendrick Johnson, DO, is a family doctor who founded Ark Family Health, the first direct primary care practice in the Phoenix area.