What’s the best way to get more people vaccinated against Covid-19 to try to end the pandemic? Gee, how about raising the price of the vaccines?
Both Pfizer and Moderna have upped the prices of their Covid-19 coronavirus mRNA vaccines in their latest supply contracts to the European Union (EU). According to Reuters, each Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine dose will now be 19.50 euros, a 25% increase from the 15.50 euros previous price. That’s going from about $18.40 to $23.15 in U.S. dollars. That’s not an insignificant price hike. Imagine going into the store to find out that the price of your favorite “Harry Styles goes hunting” doll, your gluten-free water, or your bacon-covered hot dog has gone up by 25%.
Similarly, each dose of the Moderna vaccine will now be $25.50, which is around 21.50 in Euros and about a 13% increase from the prior 19 Euro price from the first procurement deal. Not exactly a Groupon for vaccines.
Now apparently, this is still lower than the previously agreed upon $28.50. However, orders for the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine orders have since been significantly larger than originally anticipated. This is in large part because parts of the European public have become more skeptical about the Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines as options, after very, very rare but serious blood clotting concerns emerged.
Isn’t raising the price of Covid-19 vaccines in the middle of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic sort of like raising the price of water during a fire? Or raising the price of toilet paper when you are on the porcelain throne with no TP around after a particularly bad serving of chili pepper and prune casserole?
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Sure, there’s clear demand, which means that people may be more willing to pay more for the vaccines. Sure, the E.U. wants more Covid-19 mRNA vaccines without the Astra-Zeneca vaccines being able to fulfill demand. Sure there may be a need for boosters soon. Sure, such companies are driven by bottom lines, such as making profits, increasing shareholder value, and all that heart-warming stuff. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. With the world immersed in an emergency and trying to increase vaccination coverage, wouldn’t a little more “let’s scratch each others’ backs because everyone is super itchy” be nice?
After a rocky start, the EU’s Covid-19 vaccination program has really picked up steam in recent months. Early on in 2021, the EU lacked adequate supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, causing the 27 member states to fall behind the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel in getting their populations vaccinated. After all, you can’t use what you don’t yet have.
However, once the E.U. was finally armed with increasing supplies of the Covid-19 vaccines, they eventually not only caught up with but actually pulled ahead of the U.S. The U.S. Covid-19 vaccination program, if you recall, began in December 2020 like a fish riding in a bicycle race, stumbling out of the gates. The vaccination program really got its legs after January 20, which happened to be National Cheese Lovers Day, and cruised along for much of the late Winter and Spring. However, vaccination rates have been slowing significantly in the past couple months, mainly due to vaccine hesitancy with vaccine misinformation and disinformation spreading like Nutella in a firehose. While the U.S. has administered around 102.44 doses per 100 people, E.U. countries have already topped that number at 102.66, according to Our World in Data. A greater percentage of people in the E.U. (58%) have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine compared to the U.S. (56.5%).
Moreover, a E.U. survey conducted in May and published in June revealed that 69% of respondents are “either already vaccinated, or eager to be vaccinated as soon as possible. 79% intend to get vaccinated sometime this year.” Those are significantly higher than U.S. numbers. Apparently, Europeans may be less susceptible to those “oh, the vaccine is going make you like a refrigerator door so that magnets stick to you” conspiracy theories and other ridiculous claims about the vaccine that have been spreading in the U.S. like wildfire.
The last thing you want to do is curb that momentum, whether you are in Europe or anywhere else in the world. Assuming that you don’t have rocket ship like Jeff Bezos, as long as the Covid-19 coronavirus continues to spread substantially anywhere in the world you will remain at risk. Thus, the E.U. better controlling the virus is in your best interests. The concern is that any raise in prices could make it more difficult for more people to get the Covid-19 vaccine there. It would be a further drain on the funds available to E.U. governments to conduct public health information campaigns and run vaccination programs.
It will be especially important to get people in lower income areas vaccinated. Many lower income neighborhoods have higher population densities and thus can be areas where the virus may spread faster and further. And you can’t just say “screw the poor,” even if you are a billionaire and have all your possessions gold-plated. Lower income neighborhoods can essentially serve as “cauldrons” continuing to fuel the pandemic and generate new variants. Our PHICOR team study published previously in the scientific journal Health Affairs showed how prioritizing the vaccination of people in lower income neighborhoods can benefit all of society by stopping an epidemic sooner. If these price increases are subsequently passed from the E.U. governments to these lower income neighborhoods, these neighborhoods may not be able to afford vaccination and thus be less likely to get vaccinated.
Plus, E.U. member states like the U.S. and the U.K. have been gut-punched by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) for well over a year now. Raising vaccine prices now is sort of like going to friend who is down and out and hungry and saying, “hey, you know that mac-and-cheese dinner that I cooked you, which you paid for? Could you actually pay me more money for it, cause you know, let it rain?”
It’s not as if Pfizer and Moderna haven’t made money from the Covid-19 vaccines. In February, Julia Kollewe reported for The Guardian how Moderna expected to “rake” in $18.4 billion in sales of its Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine this year. The word “rake” is usually reserved for big windfalls, as you don’t tend to say that you are “raking in the pennies.” Then in May, the New York Times reported how the Covid-19 vaccines have generated $3.5 billion in revenues for Pfizer during the first three months of this year alone. That’s quite a lot of money.
And it should lead to quite a lot of profit. Pfizer and Moderna have certainly spent money to help develop the vaccines. They weren’t the only ones though to contribute to the development of mRNA vaccines. Research on this technology has been going on in various labs for years, and governments have already contributed lots of money to such research. Claiming that Pfizer and Moderna were solely responsible for the mRNA vaccines would be like saying that a tech CEO personally screwed together the devices in your room or programmed the apps on your smartphone. No, when they say that a tech CEO screwed something over, that’s usually not what’s meant. Plus, chances are Pfizer and Moderna have already recouped those costs.
During a public health emergency, rather than focusing solely on bottom lines, pharmaceutical companies need to focus on everyone’s bottoms, meaning butts. This doesn’t mean that you should start injecting people’s butts with the Covid-19 vaccines. Instead, it emphasizes that everyone’s butt is on the line as long as the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic continues. The longer this pandemic gets drawn out, the more suffering and deaths will occur. That will end up costing everyone and continue to be a drain on the economy, which eventually will come back to hurt pharmaceutical companies.
The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by an epidemic of short-term thinking. Raising prices now may get more people saying, “WTP,” as in “what the pharma.” If pharmaceutical companies really want to engender longer term trust from the public, maybe, just maybe, hiking up vaccine prices in the middle of a pandemic is not the greatest of ideas.