Conflicts running rampant in the Covid era
As our country faces difficult decisions about how to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies are wielding their influence through considerable contributions to policymakers, health care administrators, and journalists. These conflicts contribute to media hype of new treatments and propagation of the idea that lower prices threaten innovation.
Campaign contributions abound
Let’s start with the big picture. According to a recent analysis in StatNews, more than two-thirds of sitting members of Congress have received contributions from pharmaceutical companies in advance of the November 2020 election. This includes payments from Covid-19 vaccine developers AstraZeneca ($314,500 paid to politicians), Johnson & Johnson ($542,000), and GlaxoSmithKline ($195,000), as well as remdesivir drug developer Gilead ($174,000).
These contributions are partly for “greasing the skids on a particular issue for which a company has great concern or sees great opportunity,” like Covid-19, said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Altogether, the 25 largest drug companies and trade groups spent $11 million on 2020 campaign contributions. Although the contributions favored Republican incumbents, Democrat politicians still received about 47% of these contributions from drug companies.
“The breadth of these contributions shows drug corporations have no intention of doing anything to lower their prices.”Ben Wakana
“The breadth of these contributions shows drug corporations have no intention of doing anything to lower their prices — they are lavishing millions in campaign contributions to protect their power to dictate high prices for prescription drugs,” said Ben Wakana, the executive director of the advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now.
Hospital CEO’s conflicts go undisclosed
In early February, Betsy Nabel wrote in a syndicated op-ed that lowering drug prices would harm the “innovation ecosystem” and curtail drug development. We’ve seen this argument used many times before, but this was one of the few times a hospital CEO had made this point, giving the “innovation” claim more weight.
Nabel’s byline identified her as a “cardiologist, a professor or medicine at Harvard Medical School and the president of Brigham Health and its Brigham and Women’s Hospital.” But she did not disclose that she was a member of the board at the biotech company Moderna until very recently, the Boston Globe reported. As a member of the board, Nabel received $487,500 in stock options last year, and owned millions of dollars in company stock.
As a member of the board, Nabel received $487,500 in stock options last year, and owned millions of dollars in company stock.
In the op-ed, Nabel wrote that policies such as drug price controls “could eliminate the financial incentives that allow research scientists to explore new treatments.” Coming from an independent doctor and researcher with decades of experience, this claim holds some weight; from a Moderna board member with a fiduciary duty to the drug company, the argument is much less convincing. Writers at the Globe noted that Moderna plans to price their vaccine at a much higher level compared to other companies, casting further suspicion on Nabel’s insistence on higher prices for the sake of “innovation.”
Who is funding journalism training?
Gary Schwitzer, journalist and creator of Health News Review, found several recent examples of drug companies funding training for journalists. One of these cases is a Vaccine “Boot Camp” event series, funded by GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company with a Covid-19 vaccine currently in development, and run by the National Press Foundation, which has previously taken money from drug companies to run journalism trainings.
Schwitzer notes the irony of GSK funding a journalism training on vaccines, while former GSK executive Moncef Slaoui is leading the President’s vaccine initiative called Operation Warp Speed. Slaoui’s numerous financial conflicts of interest have been previously criticized by the press. So if you can’t beat them…fund them? The whole thing just “doesn’t smell right,” writes Schwitzer.