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Bernie Sanders Proposes Rule to Lower Prices of Drugs Developed with Tax Dollars

It would require pharma companies to charge fair prices for drugs that result from federally funded research.

Jesse Hicks

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for MoveOn.org; David Smart/Stocksy

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Senator Bernie Sanders is proposing a new rule that would require pharmaceutical companies to charge fair prices when selling drugs they developed with taxpayer dollars. Under the rule, federal agencies and federally funded nonprofits (like research universities) would have to make reasonable pricing agreements with manufacturers before giving them exclusive rights to health patents including prescription and generic drugs, vaccines, and medical devices.

It may sound arcane, but Sanders' bill has a very specific target: a vaccine candidate for the Zika virus developed by the Department of Defense. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects including microcephaly, where a baby's brain and head is significantly smaller than normal. The disease made headlines last year as it affected South and Latin America, and eventually arrived in Miami; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded more than 180 cases in the United States so far this year.

In response, the Department of Defense began working on a vaccine. It chose a division of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi as its research partner, promising the company more than $100 million in grant money to take its vaccine candidate through testing. The DoD also announced in December a plan to grant Sanofi Pasteur an exclusive license to sell the vaccine in the United States.

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That potentially very lucrative license has Sanders sounding the alarm, because Sanofi allegedly refuses to agree to price the potential vaccine fairly. The company has also demanded a patent that'll keep competitors from making the immunization. (Responding to Sanders, Sanofi says it never rejected a fair pricing proposal because one was never offered, as "both parties recognized it is premature" to talk pricing well before the potential vaccine is ready to market.) Sanofi was one of three drug companies accused in a January lawsuit of conspiring to raise insulin prices; prior to the suit, Sanders had called for a federal investigation into collusion by Sanofi and others.

Sanders previously called on Donald Trump to scuttle the deal in a New York Times op-ed; now he's turning to legislation. "The days of allowing Sanofi and other drug makers to gouge American consumers after taking billions in taxpayer money must end. That is why I am introducing legislation to demand fairer, lower prices for the Zika vaccine and for every drug developed with government resources. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose," he told HuffPost, adding, "Sanofi and the rest of the pharmaceutical industry cannot be allowed to make huge profits on the backs of working class Americans, many of whom cannot afford the medication they are prescribed."

The bill is unlikely to become law. Sanders unsuccessfully pushed for a similar rule 20 years ago; today, pharmaceutical company lobbyists have recruited support across party lines in Congress, and the Trump White House seems uninterested in such a law. Instead, it appears more likely to issue pharma-friendly executive orders. Even if the bill fails, though, Sanders is keeping pressure on the government and drug companies, and hoping to force a debate about who ultimately benefits from research funded with taxpayer dollars.

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