Drugmakers say they’re racing to develop COVID-19 treatments, but Dems say they must be affordable 

By: - March 28, 2020 4:48 pm

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Drug companies like Takeda, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Lilly Research Laboratories, Pfizer and Sanofi say they are working on treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus.

There are now 4,650 positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, in Michigan as of 3 p.m. Saturday. The state reports 111 people have reportedly died of COVID-19. The World Health Organization reports that there are 571,678 confirmed cases worldwide and 26,495 deaths. In the United States, there are at least 113,031 confirmed cases and 1,895 deaths.

The companies shared information about the new treatments and vaccines they’re working on last week during a call hosted by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents America biopharmaceutical research companies. According to PhRMA’s website, the company has invested more than $900 billion in the search for new treatments and cures for diseases like COVID-19.


However, progressive Democrats have long criticized drugmakers, like former Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who’s called out Pfizer for increasing drug prices.

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who led a bus ride last summer from Detroit to Canada for people looking for cheaper insulin, tweeted last month: “I don’t hear bankers complain about ‘big government’ when taxpayers hand them a trillion-dollar bailout. I don’t see drug companies grumble when ‘big government’ gives them patent monopolies to charge sky-high prices. I don’t know who’s more corrupt: Wall Street or Big Pharma.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders in Flint, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

But during desperate times as COVID-19 spreads, pharmaceutical companies are likely to be part of the solution.

The companies shared information about the new treatments and vaccines they’re working on last week during a call hosted by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The group represents American Lilly Research Laboratories, known for their diabetes drug Iletin, has announced that they’ll be working with AbCellera, a small private Canadian biotechnology company that specializes in speedily discovering potent antibodies. The companies are working to develop antibody therapy products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19. 

Executives said the partnership will lead to quicker development, manufacturing and distribution of the products. Lilly Chief Scientific Officer and President Daniel Skovronsky said those products could be ready to test in as little as four months.

Skovronsky also talked about Lilly’s partnership with the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), with support from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to accelerate testing in Indiana for COVID-19. He added that the partnerships should start to expand Indiana’s ability to conduct testing and receive a timely diagnosis of individuals who suspect they may be carrying the virus.


Takeda Pharmaceutical Company says it is currently working on a blood plasma-derived therapy called TAK-888 that could be used to fight COVID-19. President of Plasma-Derived Therapies Julie Kim said the company would use antibodies from recovered patients in order to manufacture a therapy product but doing so requires coordination with global health authorities.

Kim said that patients could have access to the product in nine to 18 months.

Sanofi Associate Vice President of Research and Strategy for Vaccines Clement Lewin said the company is planning to tweak a vaccine first developed for the SARS outbreak. The company plans on testing the vaccine out in a year.

State medical chief: ‘We are still in the upslope,’ COVID-19 cases expected to rise for weeks

Lewin added that Sanofi’s partner company Regeneron has already started trials using an antibody-based treatment called Kevzara. Kevzara works to block the IL-6 receptor, which may play a role in driving the overactive inflammatory response in the lungs of patients who are severely or critically ill with COVID-19. Tests for Kevzara are supposed to begin in April.

GSK Vaccines Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Thomas Breuer says the company is working with CEPI, an organization launched 2017, to develop vaccines to stop future epidemics and the University of Queensland, Australia on developing vaccines with adjuvant technology. That means a substance is being added to some vaccines to enhance the immune response and create a stronger and longer lasting immunity against infections than the vaccine alone.

Breuer said use of an adjuvant is important in a pandemic situation since it can reduce the amount of antigen required per dose, allowing more vaccine doses to be produced and made available to more people.

In addition, GSK announced its partnership with Chinese company Clover Biopharmaceuticals, which is focused on developing biologic therapies. Breuer said that a treatment could be ready in 12 to 18 months.

Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten says the company has partnered with German-based biotechnology company BioNTech to develop a vaccine. BioNTech is using a messenger RNA platform to quickly develop its vaccine, called BNT162. Messenger RNA is important to this type of vaccine because DNA-based vaccines need to interact with the nucleus of the cell, but mRNA is found all across the cell and is much more accessible. During the call, Dolsten said he sees mRNA as a platform for the future to deal with these rapidly emerging health threats.

The vaccine is expected to enter clinical testing by the end of April.

Michigan has 1K more COVID-19 cases since Friday, 111 total deaths

Dems call for affordable COVID-19 care

While the Michigan Medicaid program has already waived all co-pays and cost-sharing for testing and health care treatment related to COVID-19, others who don’t live in Michigan haven’t been that lucky, leaving them to foot big bills long after they’ve recovered. 

According to Time, one woman received a bill for more than $34,000 after being tested and treated for the disease. Additionally, it’s not known how much a vaccine, plasma or antibody treatments for COVID-19 will cost. 

Stat News reports Democrats are pushing to constrain how much drugmakers can charge for a vaccine for COVID-19. This comes after U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Alex Azar was questioned about the affordability of treatments and vaccines. He reportedly couldn’t guarantee that all Americans would be able to afford the vaccine, adding that the “priority was on getting vaccines and therapeutics,” and that “price controls [wouldn’t] get us there.” 

Rashida Tlaib with reporters
U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib talks to reporters, April 22, 2019 | Ken Coleman

However, some lawmakers say vaccines and other treatments for the disease should be free.

“We should be working to get rid of barriers [when it comes] to accessing  medical care, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 should be made available for free to every person in our country,” said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said that no Michigander should have to choose between seeking care for COVID-19 or paying their bills. 

“Treatments and vaccines should be covered quickly when they become available. After taking the lead on an effort that is now law to make testing free, I remain committed to working together to aggressively address this public health crisis,” said Peters. 

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.