Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, asked Dr. Monica Bertagnolli during her confirmation hearing to become director of the National Institutes of Health.
Can the National Institutes of Health lower drug prices? It doesn’t approve new drugs or pay for them, but its role in drug research gives it surprising leverage.
Senator Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, voted against the confirmation of Dr. Monica Bertagnolli as NIH director. Sanders, a Vermont independent allied with Senate Democrats, said he didn’t think Bertagnolli was ready to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry.
But Sanders told NPR he plans to work with Bertagnolli, who was confirmed on Nov. 7. He says something needs to change at the NIH, which spends billions of dollars each year on biomedical research that lays the groundwork for in large profits for the drug industry.
“And yet, despite the huge amount of money that taxpayers spend to make these drugs, the drug companies get the product and they end up charging us the highest prices in the world for it,” said said Sanders.
Government contracts may apply
Moderna’s COVID vaccine is an example of the problem, he said. The vaccine was developed with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH. And the government agreed to buy 100 million doses even though it failed clinical trials, was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and all the doses ended up in the trash.
Ameet Sarpatwari, assistant director of the Program on Regulation, Therapeutics and Law at Harvard Medical School, said the government could have used its leverage as a funder. “It could be to ensure reasonable prices for Americans at least, making sure that Americans don’t pay more than people in other countries,” he said.
Moderna raised the price of its COVID shot this year from about $26 a dose to $130 a dose. The company downplayed the NIH’s role.
Often, the pharmaceutical industry discounts the importance of NIH-funded research in its work. But Sarpatwari says the NIH is actually the largest funder of biomedical research in the world.
Much can be built into NIH contracts to protect the American people. “It is possible to at least put in place terms that will ensure equal access to the fruits of all support,” he said, adding that the NIH is reluctant to flex its muscles on pricing.
Sanders requested a review of the licensing agreement
Sanders wants to change that and said he hopes the agency will be less comfortable with the pharmaceutical industry under new leadership. He sent a letter last month asking the administration to investigate the NIH’s moves to grant an exclusive patent license for a cervical cancer drug developed by the agency to a mysterious startup incorporated in Delaware that no website.
The startup, Scarlet TCR, has a relationship with a former NIH employee and the deal could allow the company future rates for a government invention.
The agency said no decision has been made regarding the Scarlet TCR.
“NIH shares concerns about high drug prices and the burden they place on patients and their families,” NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles wrote in an email to NPR. “As stated during his Senate confirmation hearing, Dr. Bertagnolli expressed his commitment to ensuring that the benefits of NIH-funded research are affordable and available to all Americans.”
Bertagnolli will work with Congress, Myles added.