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Senators grilled Moderna's CEO about spiking the price of its COVID-19 vaccine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Moderna has announced plans to quadruple the price of its COVID-19 vaccine once the U.S. government is no longer the exclusive buyer. Today, a Senate committee grilled the company's CEO, Stephane Bancel, on the planned hike. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to fill us in. Hey, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so what I don't get is Pfizer's also raising its COVID vaccine price, right? Why is Moderna's CEO the one getting all the tough questions right now?

LUPKIN: It's a really good question because, yes, both companies are planning to increase their vaccine prices. But Moderna got a lot of money and help from the federal government that Pfizer didn't, for things like the early stages of research and development. In fact, government scientists say they co-invented the Moderna vaccine, which Moderna disagrees with. The government also agreed to spend billions on doses, even if the Moderna vaccine ultimately failed and wasn't approved by the FDA. The point was to take on the risk so Moderna could go full steam ahead while the pandemic raged. Senator Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, started the hearing by saying he's grateful for the work Moderna did. But he was quick to pivot to accusing Moderna of corporate greed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: This vaccine would not exist without NIH's partnership and expertise and the substantial investment of the taxpayers of this country.

LUPKIN: He talked about how Bancel and other Moderna executives basically became billionaires overnight, only to thank the taxpayers by hiking the price of the vaccine.

CHANG: Well, what did Bancel have to say about raising the price of the COVID vaccine?

LUPKIN: He mainly said the vaccine's price was based on its value. How many people wouldn't die or be hospitalized because they'd been vaccinated? He also said moving from bulk government purchases to a commercial market is more costly for Moderna to make and distribute the vaccine. So, for example, he said they're moving from 10 doses in a vial to single-dose vials. But the current vaccine is estimated to cost less than $3 a dose to make. And obviously, the company was already making billions of dollars in profits a year on the old vaccine price.

CHANG: Right. And the new price is reportedly $130 a dose. What does that mean for all of us when we get our next shots?

LUPKIN: So if you have insurance or Medicare, that should cover it. You shouldn't see any change at the pharmacy counter. For the uninsured, that's an open question. The company says it will launch a patient assistance program that would make the vaccine free. But the senators asked a lot of questions about the details because those programs can be so cumbersome that they wind up being a barrier to people getting vaccinated. Bancel said Moderna is still working on it, and they're gearing up for a fall campaign to publicize that option for the uninsured. Now, somebody has to pay. Some of the senators said that behind the scenes, insurers and the government - taxpayers - will still be purchasing the vaccine, and it's going to cost a lot more money.

CHANG: So ultimately, Sydney, does it seem like senators will be able to get Moderna to lower the price?

LUPKIN: They don't have much leverage beyond the bully pulpit. Bancel didn't commit to much of anything on price, even though he was asked a few times to reconsider. Several pharmaceutical policy experts in a panel afterwards said the government's best chance to have gotten a better price commitment from Moderna was in the original contract three years ago, and that simply didn't happen.

CHANG: Simply didn't happen. That is NPR's Sydney Lupkin. Thank you, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.