Anuzis: U.S. drug industry saving lives – if Congress doesn’t squelch it

Published on, June 4 2021

By Saul Anuzis

About 80% of seniors have received at least one dose of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are some of the safest and most effective inoculations ever invented. All Americans, especially seniors, should be immensely grateful for what U.S. scientists accomplished in mere months. Had it taken years to create these vaccines — as many public health experts originally predicted — hundreds of thousands more people would have perished.

American researchers are making incredible progress against a host of other diseases too. Thanks to private investment and a reasonable regulatory approach, the United States leads the world in medical innovation. It’s possible that, in just a decade or two, we’ll have cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and a host of other deadly diseases.

Unfortunately, some lawmakers evidently want to slam the brakes on this scientific progress. They’re considering imposing price controls on prescription drugs. If any of these proposals were to pass, medical innovation would slow to a crawl. American patients — especially our most vulnerable seniors — would suffer.

Right now, American seniors can access more medicines than citizens of any other country. From 2011 to 2017, global drug makers released 220 new drugs. Close to 90% of those medicines were available in the U.S., but just two-thirds were available to British patients. Only half were available in France and Canada.

And of all the cancer medications launched between 2011 and 2019, 95% were available in the U.S. Patients in the United Kingdom and France, on the other hand, had access to just 70%.

This disparity has meant the difference between life and death. The U.S. has the highest five-year survival rate for 18 of the most common forms of cancer, including colon, lung and breast cancer. Meanwhile, our breast cancer survival rate is 5% higher than in the U.K., France and Germany.

The U.S. is also the world’s most dominant drug maker. American pharmaceutical companies develop half of the world’s new drugs and account for a quarter of total global pharmaceutical research spending. Germany, on the other hand, only contributes 6% to the global total while the U.K. accounts for just 1 to 3%.

It’s no fluke that the rest of the world lags in both medical access and innovation.

Other developed countries generally impose strict price controls on drugs. Their health care systems are less likely to cover the latest medicines.

Those arbitrary controls stifle research and development. As price controls increased throughout Europe, the share of new medicines originating from the U.K., France and Germany fell by more than half over the past four decades. It became challenging to recoup the nearly $2.6 billion it costs to develop a new cure. Now, the most innovative companies set up shop in America.

The U.S. does not have a fully centralized health system, nor does it allow the government to set artificially low prescription drug prices. American patients reap unparalleled medical benefits because of it.

But if certain lawmakers get their way, that could all change.

Of great concern is the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, or H.R. 3, which was recently re-introduced in the House. Under the deceptively named bill, U.S. drug prices would be capped at 120% of the average price paid in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan. In essence, the U.S. would adopt the artificially low drug prices set by foreign governments.

If this “reference pricing” bill passes, the price controls would limit return for investors who fund research and development. Consequently, the development of lifesaving new drugs would slow to a trickle.

In fact, the measures could slash the number of medicines developed by small and emerging biotech firms in the U.S. by more than 90%. This would mean 61 fewer medicines hitting the market over the next decade.

Seniors would be particularly harmed by the lack of state-of-the-art biopharmaceutical research, since most of the medicines lost would treat diseases that disproportionately impact older adults, such as lung and prostate cancer and dementia.

Millions of seniors will avoid contracting COVID-19 this year, thanks to the vaccines produced by American researchers’ hard work. It’d be foolish to undermine that work with misguided legislation.

Saul Anuzis is president of 60 Plus, the American Association of Senior Citizens.