June 25, 2023
It’s been hard to miss the screaming on the Internet because Dr. Peter Hotez has refused to debate RFK Jr. over vaccine safety. I think Farhad Manjoo did a good job laying out the case against Dr. Hotez debating Kennedy in a column last week.
But I think there is a more fundamental question worth asking. What exactly is the point of the outrage that these people and their Internet swarm are swirling up?
We know the rhetoric – they want to beat up the Big Pharma shills. That all sounds great except the immediate target of their anger, Dr. Hotez, is about as far from a Big Pharma shill as you can get. Dr. Hotez has devoted his career to developing low-cost vaccines, that are open-source.
This means that anyone anywhere in the world can produce them. He has deliberately used simple technologies, so that it would not be necessary to have expensive manufacturing facilities to produce them. This means that billions of people in poor countries, who would not be able to afford the patent-protected vaccines produced by Big Pharma, can afford Dr. Hotez’s vaccines.
While for the most part their markets would not overlap, to some extent there will be people who would otherwise get a vaccine from Big Pharma, but instead get the cheaper vaccine developed by Dr. Hotez and his colleagues.
In principle, many more people, including people in wealthy countries, could take advantage of the low-cost vaccines developed by Dr. Hotez. For example, instead of paying over $100 for the Moderna or Pfizer boosters against Covid, for less than $5 people in the United States could be getting shots of Corbevax, the vaccine developed by Dr. Hotez and his colleagues.
I said “could be,” because the vaccine has not been approved by the FDA. Even though more than 100 million people have received Corbevax in India and Indonesia, the FDA still requires a U.S. based clinical trial to approve the vaccine.
If the RFK/Rogan/Musk outrage gang really wanted to nail Big Pharma, they would be pushing the FDA to approve Dr. Hotez’s vaccine, rather than trashing him. In fact, Mr. Musk could even pull out some pocket change and pay for the clinical trials, if this is really what is needed to get Corbevax approved.
The issue with Big Pharma goes way beyond Corbevax or vaccines. We get hugely ripped off by the drug companies because the government grants them patent monopolies and related protections. This allows them to charge outlandish prices for the drugs that people need for their health or even their life.
We will spend over $550 billion this year for drugs that would likely sell for under $100 billion in a free market without patent monopolies. The difference of $450 billion comes to more than $3,400 a year for every household in the country. Think of that as the Big Pharma tax.
But it’s worse than just a tax that comes out of your paycheck every two weeks. This is a tax that the industry hits people with when they are in bad health. People with cancer, with multiple sclerosis, and with a wide variety of other diseases often find themselves having to struggle to get tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for the drugs they need to sustain their health.
This can still be the case even when they have good insurance. Insurers aren’t happy to pay huge prices for drugs and they make patients jump through all sorts of hoops to get expensive drugs covered. And, even when insurers do pay for the drug, patients may still face co-pays that are a huge burden for anyone who is not a Kennedy, a Rogan, or a Musk.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we paid for the research upfront as we did with Moderna’s Covid vaccine, in almost all cases drugs would be cheap. We would be talking about paying tens or hundreds of dollars, instead of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If the government paid for the research in advance, and then let all new drugs be sold as cheap generics, we would also eliminate the problem that the Kennedy-Rogan-Musk gang are hyperventilating over. Drug companies would no longer have a huge incentive to lie to get people to use their products.
Generic drug companies do make profits, but they make profits in the same way that companies selling shovels and paper clips make profits. They charge a normal markup over their costs. They are not charging $30,000 for a drug that costs them a couple hundred dollars to manufacture and distribute. They will not try paying off researchers, doctors, and politicians to sell more prescriptions when they are making $5 or $10 a prescription, as opposed to the situation today when they can make one hundred times this amount.
It would be great if we interest the Kennedy-Rogan-Musk crew in a policy that would actually do something about Big Pharma abuses, but they apparently just want to yell. This is the standard operating procedure among the Trump right-wing these days.
Starting at the bottom, Donald Trump always claims that he is the savior of the ordinary working person against the elites. But his big project when he got into office in 2017 was passing a huge tax cut for the richest people in the country and large corporations. That really taught those elites a thing or two.
And, as far as the infrastructure he promised, we got lots of “infrastructure weeks,” but no infrastructure. Trump also promised us a “terrific healthcare plan” to replace Obamacare. We are still waiting for that terrific healthcare plan, but the rich got their tax cut the first year of the Trump presidency.
Anyhow, we keep seeing the Kennedy-Rogan-Musk show again and again in slightly different forms. The idea is to distract everyone from policies that could actually benefit ordinary people with inflammatory rhetoric that is unconnected to reality. They demonize people who in many cases deserve demonization, the drug companies in this case. But when it comes to policies that will actually help ordinary people, and rein in the bad guys, well — don’t look for this crew. They are too busy hyperventilating nonsense.
 After paying Moderna more than $900 million for developing and testing its vaccine, the Trump administration also incredibly let them keep control of the vaccine, creating five Moderna billionaires by the summer of 2021.