Bernie Sanders on Monday was among critics denouncing AstraZeneca—one of the world’s biggest and most profitable pharmaceutical corporations—for aggressively raising the prices of some of its best-selling drugs in recent months, even after it secured a more than $1 billion taxpayer handout for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The Los Angeles Times reports AstraZeneca has implemented two rounds of price hikes for some of its most popular medications in 2020. In January, the U.K.-based company announced it would modestly raise prices on 13 different products. Shortly after the company’s January announcement, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated around the world. AstraZeneca subsequently instituted price hikes that were much steeper than some of its top competitors.
The price of some AstraZeneca drugs has increased by up to 6%, according to an investigation by the Times and 46brookyln Research, a nonprofit group focusing on the pharmaceutical industry.
According to Pharm Exec, AstraZeneca is the world’s 11th-largest pharmaceutical company by 2019 sales. The Times reports it enjoyed over $3.6 billion in operating profits over the first half of 2020.
News of the price hikes sparked condemnation from progressive leaders and activists.
“It’s outrageous for Big Pharma to use the pandemic as an opportunity to raise prices on life-saving medicine,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who made Medicare for All—including prescription drugs—a pillar of his near-miss 2020 presidential run, tweeted on Monday. “Big drug companies don’t need more subsidies. We need to end their greed.”
“Pharma corporations are sophisticated political actors that understand this is a risky time to be seen increasing prices, and yet these corporations are addicted to price increases,” Peter Maybarduk, who oversees drug policy for the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen, told the Times.
In April, AstraZeneca entered talks with Oxford University to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, and the following month the company secured $1.2 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services to produce at least 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021. HHS Secretary Alex Azar, a former executive at U.S. drugmaker Eli Lilly, hailed the contract as a “major milestone.”
However, AstraZeneca’s work on a Covid-19 vaccine hit a significant barrier last week, with U.S. and U.K. clinical trials temporarily paused after a patient developed a potentially dangerous complication. Trials partially resumed on Monday in the U.K., while they remain on hold in the U.S. pending an investigation into the British patient.
Oxford University has also come under fire in Britain after the prestigious institution changed course under pressure from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from a plan to make any Covid-19 vaccine available for free or at a very low cost to signing the deal with AstraZeneca. The company said in July that it will not profit from its Covid-19 vaccine, although critics have noted that there is no way to guarantee that it won’t, and the Oxford deal gives AstraZeneca sole rights without any affordability requirement.
News of the latest Big Pharma price hike came a day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order he said will lower prescription drug prices. Critics immediately dismissed Trump’s move as an election year publicity stunt.
The administration has not commented on AstraZeneca’s move. Although the government has committed to providing pharmaceutical companies with over $10 billion in taxpayer funding to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, the administration has not required them to disclose how much they would charge for it.
The United States has the world’s highest prescription drug prices. According to 2019 data from the House Ways and Means Committee, U.S. drug prices are nearly four times higher than the combined average price for 11 other similar countries.
“With one exception, we found that individual drug prices in the U.S. ranged from 70% (Lantus Solostar—a type of insulin) to 4,833% (Dulera—a prescription asthma medication) higher than the combined mean price in the other 11 countries,” the report states. “Compared to individual countries, drug prices in the U.S. ranged from 0.6 to 67 times the price for the same drugs.”
Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to afford their medicines. A recent Gallup poll found that one in five U.S. households were unable to afford medication prescribed by a doctor.