Don't let Congress jeopardize Illinois's medical miracles

  • Jay Fisher

    Jay Fisher

 
By Jay Fisher
Guest columnist
Posted10/27/2021 1:00 AM

COVID-19 brought with it not just sickness and death when it hit America early last year, but also great national gloom. In fact, when Dr. Anthony Fauci said at the time that it would take 18 more months to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the scientific community thought he was being "ridiculously optimistic." Vaccines take years to develop, they said, not months.

Turns out the good doctor was actually being too pessimistic. Just eight months after he made his prediction, we had not one but two vaccines approved for use in this emergency. In the United States, 57% of the population has been fully vaccinated, with 66% receiving at least one dose. The figures for Illinois are comparable: 54% fully vaccinated, and 69% with at least a single dose.

 

All this may seem miraculous, but there was no miracle involved. The speed at which U.S. scientists were able to develop vaccines for a novel virus was the result of decades of painstaking research in industry labs. Financed largely by the industry itself, this fund of knowledge has vastly expanded our understanding of disease and created breakthrough treatments and cures once thought impossible.

For more than 30 years, the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry has been the world leader in the research and development of new medicines. In 2018 alone, the industry invested an estimated $102 billion in research and development. As a result, nearly three-quarters of the drugs currently in development are first in class -- meaning they represent entirely new approaches to fighting a particular disease. There are 4,395 clinical trials underway for many of these drugs in Illinois alone.

The COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna were created using a new technology based on messenger RNA -- a way to provide antibody-making instructions directly to a cell. As one expert described the process, "the human body itself is effectively turned into a vaccine-making factory."

The benefits of this breakthrough are incalculable -- particularly for our most vulnerable populations. The science used to create these vaccines will spin off new lifesaving treatments and leave us far better positioned to take on future infectious outbreaks. In fact, Moderna just announced that it'll soon launch clinical trials for an HIV vaccine that harnesses mRNA technology.

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Now, you might think that lawmakers in Washington would be looking for ways to further encourage or at least preserve success on this scale. But there are those, including in this state, pushing for legislation that will do just the opposite. Congressional Democrats have included a measure in their budget reconciliation package that would impose price controls on virtually every brand name medicine.

While the proposal has superficial appeal -- after all, pharmacy costs are too high -- any price-setting scheme would do more harm than good. Giving government bureaucrats broad authority to determine which medicines are available -- and at which price -- would inevitably lead to restricted access today and fewer medicines tomorrow.

That'd be devastating for our state's vulnerable patients. Millions of Illinoisans suffer from life-threatening chronic conditions, ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer's to cancer. Minority Americans often suffer from these diseases at particularly high rates -- a contributor to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities.

Upending the nation's drug market would also hurt the economy. Our state serves as one of 10 pharmaceutical hubs in the country and is home to companies like Abbott Laboratories, Charles River Laboratories, AbbVie, and Baxter International. More than 290,000 jobs in the state are directly or indirectly tied to the life sciences industry.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So it rests with congressional Democrats who are interested in bipartisan and pragmatic policy making to stand up for funding for science and the benefits it brings our state.

We've been witness to one of the most profound benefits of scientific innovation. The last thing we should be doing now is to jeopardize our therapeutic ecosystem in pursuit of an illusion of lower drug prices.

• Jay Fisher, of Lisle Township, who served as a member of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District Firefighters' Pension Fund and sat on the board of directors of DuPage Public Safety Communications.

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