Senators press Moderna CEO on COVID-19 vaccine price hike

Moderna CEO and Director Stephane Bancel testifies before the Senate HELP Committee on the price of the COVID-19 vaccine, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

By TOM MURPHY AP Health Writer

Moderna’s CEO on Wednesday defended a plan to more than quadruple the company’s COVID-19 vaccine price, but he also said the drugmaker will work to ensure patients continue paying nothing at drugstores or clinics.

Stephane Bancel told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the drugmaker will charge a list price of around $130 per dose for the vaccine in the U.S.

That price is expected to go into effect later this year. Until now, the federal government had been Moderna’s lone U.S. customer, buying doses in bulk to make sure that people weren’t charged anything.

The government paid around $15 per dose in 2020 and more than $26 last summer for Moderna’s bivalent booster, according to an analysis by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation.

More than 270 million doses of Moderna’s original COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots have been administered in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That makes it the second most popular coronavirus vaccine, trailing the shot made by Pfizer, which is also raising prices.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted that Moderna has made more than $20 billion in profits over the past two years, and the federal government contributed billions of dollars toward the vaccine’s development.

The hike will hit government payers like Medicaid and cost taxpayers, Sanders said as he pressed Bancel to reconsider the price.

The CEO said Moderna gave the government a discount with its initial prices. Now, the company must assume more costs and risk, he said.

He said, for instance, that the drugmaker will switch to single-dose vials from ones that held 10 doses.

He also that Moderna will have to make more doses than it anticipates using to ensure enough is available. The company will then have to eat the cost of unused doses, something the government has done.

“The volume we had during the pandemic gave us economies of scale we won’t have anymore,” he said.

Sanders later asked Bancel if Moderna was prepared to negotiate the price with Medicare, Medicaid and other agencies. Bancel replied that Moderna was “having discussions with all the different customers.”

While Moderna’s list price for its Spikevax vaccine will soar, company leaders have emphasized that people with insurance will continue to pay nothing out of pocket for the shots. Moderna also has a patient assistance program that will cover shots for people without coverage or who are underinsured.

Senators noted during Wednesday’s hearing that these programs can involve complex paperwork and be difficult to use.

“We want that (patient assistance program) to be something that works for patients and is not just something that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we have it, but no one can use it,'” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a doctor.

Bancel said Moderna will announce more details this fall on plans to help the uninsured, and the company was working to make the program as “easy as possible to access.”

Pfizer also has said it will charge $110 to $130 for a dose of its COVID-19 vaccine. It also cited the cost of switching to single-dose vials and commercial distribution in explaining the new prices. Pfizer used no government funding to develop its vaccine.