College of Health and Human Services
George Mason University
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George Mason University

Health Policy Webinar Explores Drug Development and Pricing in COVID-19

August 26, 2020   /   by Sarah Mae Dizon

Various parts of the biopharmaceutical industry have been committed to addressing the COVID-19 global pandemic. This health policy webinar explored possible treatments and vaccines to COVID-19 and the industry’s role in producing them.

“Part of our challenge in this drug pricing space is balancing affordability and access to support innovation,” noted Dr. Alison Cuellar, who served as moderator. She was joined by three experts to discuss this topic and the unique set of challenges faced by the biopharmaceutical industry. The webinar is the third installment of the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics (CHPRE) summer lecture series on health policy issues.

Dr. Mary Kosinki is the chief of staff and deputy vice president for science and regulatory advocacy of The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). She gave an overview of PhRMA’s framework for beating the virus. It is a multifaceted approach, emphasizing collaboration between government agencies, hospitals, and doctors around the world, screening for potential treatments, and maximizing resources to explore new technologies. Kosinski stated that currently, there are 1,228 clinical trials underway across the globe for vaccinations and treatments of COVID-19.

Equally as important as developing a treatment or vaccine, is determining its price. This has profound effects on its accessibility to patients. Dr. Peter Bach spoke next on determining the affordability of COVID-19 treatments. He explored different ways that drugs can be priced in the market. Bach is the director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“We should be trying, in nearly all cases, to pay at a level of needed incentive,” he said, emphasizing the importance of striking a balance between affordability and encouraging innovation. “We should pay enough that the next company wants to take the plunge and try to develop a new therapy. We should also pay efficiently, not pay excessive amounts for drugs that barely work.”

Due to current trends that show that low-income, minority populations are more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19 in addition to steep unemployment rates across the country, Bach noted the importance of ensuring accessibility for COVID-19 treatments.

Dr. Marta Wosinska, the director of the Margolis Center at Duke University also spoke on drug pricing as well as the supply chain for products in the biopharmaceutical industry. She noted that marketers must think about a consumer’s willingness to buy a product; this can be determined through focus groups, doctors, and other parts of the medical industry.

Another important point she raised is that pricing treatments for COVID-19 affect a company’s image to consumers. If a company sets a price too high, it can be signal to the public that profit is a higher priority than public health. At the same time, a company’s manufacturing capacity has an additional effect on prices.

On the topic of a COVID-19 vaccine, Wosinska cautioned that implementing it would take a long time. “It will take a lot to immunize hundreds of millions of Americans,” she noted. Currently, she said that five vaccine candidates are being manufactured in significant supply in the case they’ll be approved for the public. Wosinska recommended more research in therapeutics as inoculation of a vaccine will take place over a prolonged period. Bach echoed her sentiments, noting that our country should prioritize basic public health measures.

“You can see in Europe that the basic effort of testing, tracking and isolating, doesn’t drive rates down to zero, but it drives rates down a lot,” he explained. Additionally, as with testing for the virus, accessibility to a vaccine for underserved communities might be slim. “The therapeutic benefit of reducing infection rates today in terms of life expectancy gain, will swamp the benefits of a vaccine for a very long time.”

In order to ensure accessibility and affordability, Kosinski and Wosinska noted the importance of public-private partnerships in a coordinated response to the current pandemic. Kosinski assured that the biopharmaceutical industry is doing its best and will continue to prioritize the needs of patients.

“Let the data drive the conversation. Ask the right questions. Be willing to hear all different pieces of the ecosystem,” said Kosinski.

Learn more about the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics Health Policy Lecture Series.