Moderna CEO accepts invite to talk vaccine pricing in Congress—just as his company makes access pledge

Facing pressure on multiple fronts over proposed COVID-19 vaccine price hikes, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel has accepted an invitation to discuss the company's pricing strategy in Congress. But after a recent access pledge, the Moderna chief may instead plan to talk up his company's efforts to ensure the shots remain readily available.

Wednesday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently became chair of the Senate’s Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, confirmed that Bancel will testify before the committee on March 22. The hearing is bluntly titled “Taxpayers Paid Billions For It: So Why Would Moderna Consider Quadrupling the Price of the COVID Vaccine?”

Bancel and his company entered Sanders' crosshairs—plus those of high-ranking Democrats, and even the White House—after the company said it was considering pricing its mRNA shot Spikevax between $110 to $130 once the market shifts to commercial distribution.

Sanders wrote to Bancel in January, urging the billionaire to refrain from quadrupling the cost of a vaccine that, according to the senator, takes just $2.85 to manufacture. The research, development and eventual distribution of Spikevax wouldn’t have happened without the support of U.S. taxpayers, Sanders pointed out.

“As you know, the federal government, over the years, has supported Moderna every step of the way going back to 2013 when your company reportedly only had three employees,” Sanders wrote at the time, adding “[n]ow is not the time for unacceptable corporate greed.”

Still, it appears the recent complaints of Sanders and others haven’t fallen on deaf ears.

The same day the Senator confirmed Bancel had been summoned to Congress, Moderna said it would make sure people in the U.S. retain access to the company’s COVID-19 vaccines “regardless of ability to pay.”

“Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines will continue to be available at no cost for insured people whether they receive them at their doctors’ offices or local pharmacies,” the company said in a press statement. For uninsured or underinsured people, Moderna will leverage a patient assistance program to dispense the vaccines for free. The program kicks off once the United States' COVID-19 emergency declaration ends.

The episode marks the latest instance of political pressure on Big Pharma. After Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives in November, Democrats started to mull retaliatory probes into issues like tax dodging and union busting, with drugmakers surfacing as a likely target alongside banks and social media companies.

The situation has already started to heat up. In late January, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to put a magnifying glass on Amgen’s proposed buyout of rare disease drugmaker Horizon Therapeutics, plus Indivior’s acquisition of Opiant and its nasal opioid overdose portfolio.

In a letter sent to the FTC last month, Warren flagged concerns about “rampant consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry” as well as potential drug affordability and access shockwaves. Warren also pointed to the involved companies’ “long history of corporate price gouging and monopolistic behavior.”

Warren has also targeted Moderna for its prior vaccine price hike proposal. Earlier this year, Warren and Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont penned a letter to Bancel arguing that Moderna’s proposed price increase threatened to “reduce access to a life-saving vaccine while boosting [the] company’s profits.”