Moderna price hike questions necessary, but don't destroy system that made COVID vaccines possible

As a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, I witnessed the monumental challenges brought on by a historic pandemic. Three years ago, COVID-19 was decimating the country and the world ground to a halt. We were all hopeful science would deliver a vaccine, yet in March 2020 Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted it would take 12 or 18 months at least – and even that would be incredibly fast given that vaccines often take as many as 15 years to come to market.

By that December, however, the first doses of highly effective vaccines – based on long studied mRNA technology – were delivered in the United States. This surpassed even the most optimistic expectations, and with this delivery came hope that the vaccines would break the back of the pandemic.

Messenger RNA vaccines saved millions of lives around the world, avoided countless costly hospitalizations and allowed the U.S. economy to reopen and the world to get back to work. A 2022 study in the Journal of Medical Economics found COVID-19 vaccines generated about $5 trillion in societal economic value for the United States. Plain and simple, these vaccines – and the innovation that led to them – helped our country avoid countless deaths and an economic depression.

Operation Warp Speed’s success was a testament to the value of government, academia and the private sector working together to accomplish a common goal.

President Donald Trump watches as U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams holds up his COVID-19 face mask on April 22, 2020.
President Donald Trump watches as U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams holds up his COVID-19 face mask on April 22, 2020.

In the wake of that success, however, the system that made it possible is under scrutiny. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel is testifying Wednesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to address questions about the price of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine when it enters the commercial market.

This is a critical and timely discussion, and we must ensure equitable (and affordable) access to therapeutics, but we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should be wary of attacks on the private sector and the public-private partnership model that delivered for Americans when they needed it most.

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Operation Warp Speed showed us this model can work, and enable us to meet future health threats by ensuring access to innovative therapies.

Messenger RNA vaccines showed up in the nick of time precisely because over the preceding decades, academic researchers had studied the early science and industry had invested billions to create actual therapies and the needed infrastructure, such as labs and factories, to make them a reality.

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This all happened long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, and the government was able to leverage such prior investments to respond in record time. Most of the world’s biopharmaceutical innovation occurs in America for a reason – our model incentivizes companies to take risks and develop breakthrough therapies.

The fact is the private sector is the innovation engine that delivered safe and effective vaccines, and abolishing all such incentives could threaten our ability to respond to future health crises.

Then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020.
Then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams receives a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020.

Vaccines must remain free

Further, as the public health emergency ends, we face a less daunting but still important challenge. As hundreds of Americans continue to die each day from the pandemic, we need to ensure our most vulnerable populations can access our health care system and get the vaccines, therapeutics and treatments they need to save their lives.

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Vaccines must remain free for anyone who wants one, and I’m encouraged that vaccine manufacturers have committed to providing free access to their vaccines for the uninsured and are employing free drug programs to do so. We all need to work together, industry and government, to ensure that these programs meet their goals and the needs of those who will use them by clearly advertising them and making them easy to use.

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This approach, in which the government and private sector link arms, is the only way to take on the pressing health issues of our time. Whether it’s a cancer moonshot or putting our full might behind a cure to sickle cell disease, we must learn from these past three years and improve upon – not abandon – the model that led to such great success during the pandemic.

Dr. Jerome Adams
Dr. Jerome Adams

We have the tools, the expertise and the resources to make this happen. Let’s not destroy the formula and partnerships that could deliver revolutionary advancements in health for everyone in this country.

Dr. Jerome Adams, a former U.S. surgeon general, is a distinguished professor and executive director of health equity initiatives at Purdue University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Dr. Adams has also previously been a consultant for Moderna on how to better address vaccine hesitancy. Follow him on Twitter: @JeromeAdamsMD 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sanders' Moderna price hike hearing mustn't destroy US vaccine model