Operation Warp Bleed
Moderna will charge $130 for Covid vaccines, as though Americans haven’t paid enough already.
More than half a million people died between 1999 and 2020 due to opioid abuse, and the number keeps climbing. The ravages of the opioid epidemic are not news to us because, in our hypermedicated era, substance abuse is quotidian. But those 564,000 souls—and counting—now represent multiple generations of addicts, including the one just coming of age today. They are paying the bill for someone else’s callous behavior—namely, a class of extremely wealthy businessmen insulated from both risk and consequence.
It’s an open secret that the responsibility for the opioid epidemic lies squarely at the feet of a handful of pharmaceutical companies that sold a plethora of highly addictive products before bothering to find out whether they were dangerous (or, in some cases, despite knowing they were). That’s one reason why, when the Covid-19 vaccine was produced by the selfsame domestic cartel that peddled meth, heroin, and fentanyl, a sizable group of Americans were reluctant to take it. This was an industry that had played with fire numerous times before, and burned almost everyone but themselves. There was little reason to suggest the Covid-19 pandemic had changed that.
Fast forward to today. Moderna, which patented the mRNA technology behind the Covid-19 vaccine, announced recently that it plans to charge approximately $130 per shot by the fall flu season. (The Very Serious, Definitely Not Seasonal virus will be treated with notable similarity to the common flu.) The backlash to this announcement has been substantive enough that the company’s CEO, Stephane Bancel, sat before Senator Bernie Sanders’s health committee for a hearing on Wednesday to explain his decision to charge so much for a vaccine for which the U.S. government initially paid between $15 and $20 per dose, and which costs $3 per dose to produce.
In defending himself before the committee, the French chief executive equivocated. Other flu shots typically sell for about $95, Bancel said, and it’s difficult to forecast the need for a seasonal vaccine, so Moderna will need to produce an excess of vaccines that will go to waste. The price surplus will cover that waste. Bancel did not comment on the almost nonexistent production costs, but instead pointed to the fact that of the $10 billion the federal government awarded Moderna during Operation Warp Speed, most of the spending went to the purchase of completed vaccine product, rather than the comparatively little $2.48 billion in research and development.
Be that as it may, it doesn’t change the fact that U.S. taxpayers have, in some form or another, funded the production of these vaccines from start to finish, to the combined tune of $30 billion. Once again, pharmaceutical companies have been insulated from consequences. The federal government funded their research, bought billions of their products, mandated it for the entire U.S. military and all federal employees, and never once stopped to find out if it was half as safe and effective as the producers claimed. While Moderna’s executive on Wednesday repeated his initial fear that he had a “5 percent chance” of succeeding in creating an mRNA vaccine to treat Covid-19, he did not comment on his chances of losing his multibillion dollar government contract. They were arguably much lower.
In return, each time this loyal and deep-pocketed customer returned to the pharmaceutical companies to purchase more product, Big Pharma charged more, with Moderna often leading the pack. The last round of vaccines the government purchased cost between $26 and $30 per dose.
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The initial price, Bancel argued, was a steep discount. The government should be happy, he was suggesting, that it got such benevolence from the philanthropic hand of Moderna. But these are businesses, and they are not in the industry of philanthropy—except, perhaps, if they believe such philanthropies will ultimately profit their enterprise. And profit it has: At its peak in 2021, Moderna was worth $181 billion, remarkable growth from its $5.25 billion worth in 2019, just before the pandemic. Bancel made $19.4 million in 2022.
Even if Moderna’s value hadn’t increased exponentially thanks to its federal account holder, the presence of a guaranteed buyer and no true competition were no small favors in their own right. And the favors keep coming. Just this week, the Department of Justice quietly inserted itself into a copyright lawsuit on behalf of Moderna at public cost. The plaintiff alleges Moderna infringed on Genevant Sciences and Arbutus Biopharma Corp.’s patented materials in the creation of the mRNA vaccines. The DOJ has taken responsibility for Moderna’s legal defense because, they reason, the creation of the vaccines was at the government’s behest. Apparently, if Uncle Sam buys your drug, he also pays your legal bills if you steal intellectual property in the process.
The whole thing smacks of corruption, but when does the touted “public-private partnership” between drug makers and politicians not? More concerning is knowing who will ultimately feel the consequences, if the recent past is any kind of prologue. Not Moderna, and certainly not Stephane Bancel and his net worth of $4.8 billion. No; once again, it will be the American people picking up the tab—first in taxes, then in inflation, and once more at the pharmacy. And if that weren’t enough, some have paid a fourth time, in the side effects associated with the drug itself—which, incidentally, you also can’t sue Moderna for.