The Remdesivir Pricing Letter Gilead Should Have Written

Peter Kolchinsky, managing partner, RA Capital

Dear America,

We’ve decided to grossly underprice remdesivir.

Hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 patients in America, and even more around the world, need our drug. But the US insurance system is corrupt and heartless. It has demonstrated that it will go to great lengths to prevent patients from getting appropriate, physician-prescribed treatments. You know their tricks: high deductibles, high copays, lengthy prior authorization forms, phone calls unreturned, surprise bills for patients.

Sadly, these barriers are common practice. So we decided to underprice remdesivir to get around the barriers, and make it as fast and easy as possible for all patients to quickly get this much-needed medicine.

In normal times, we drug developers have plenty of time to devise a counterstrategy. Development of new therapies typically takes years. That long lead time enables us to make the case for the value of our innovation and its proper use, and to plan our strategy for negotiating with insurers to lower barriers to accessing treatment. Knowing they often won’t, we usually also have time to set up patient assistance programs that help patients afford the out-of-pocket costs demanded by their insurance plans.

With remdesivir, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t have that time. So, we have opted to undercut the value of our innovation to get the therapy to as many patients as possible as soon as possible.

The price we settled on is $2,340 for a five-day course for governments in the developed world, and for the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the US government’s Indian Health Services. U.S. private insurers, in addition to Medicare and Medicaid, will pay $3,120. At this price there’s really no excuse for a private insurance plan or Medicare to put up barriers (though it somehow still won’t come as a shock if they try).

Having to combat insurers’ bureaucracy with our own counter-bureaucracy wastes society’s and our company’s resources. But our insurance system has succumbed to pathological bloat and learned to feed off the bureaucracy. It has learned to extort a profit stream from all drugs, regardless of how expensive they are, to pad their own incomes.

These insurance companies invent nothing and gaslight America into thinking they are doing favors for patients. Why do insurers require that doctors seek prior authorization to confirm that a medicine is medically necessary for a patient and then, after granting authorization, still demand high copayments that many patients cannot afford?

They will say they are trying to prevent over-utilization. They will claim that is the purpose of this “skin in the game.” But really, they are trying to prevent appropriate utilization. That is not insurance. That is disgusting.

Today, we cannot play these games. COVID-19 has filled our hospitals and ravaged our economy. So, we will eat this one. In addition to all the doses of remdesivir we have donated, we are pricing remdesivir at a fraction of what we know America tacitly recognizes it is worth.

Think about how much the US has already sacrificed to save millions of lives from COVID-19. The country has spent $6 trillion dollars to save what would likely have been about two to three million lives lost if the virus had been allowed to run rampant. That comes to about ~$2M-$3M per life. Remdesivir trials have demonstrated that the drug plausibly cuts mortality by ~30% and saves the life of one person for every ~30 who are treated.

The US has demonstrated that it values each life saved from COVID-19 at $2 million or more, so should be willing to spend more than $60,000 on a course of remdesivir. At $20,000, remdesivir would be an extraordinary bargain, leaving plenty of margin for error if it turns out that the drug is less effective than so far shown in trials.

Political organizations like ICER will ignore this logic. But ICER is backed by a billionaire who thinks that people would do a better job of curing their kids’ sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis if only they had more skin in the game. That is a particularly insidious form of libertarianism better understood as “You’re free to die of treatable diseases I’d just as soon not pay to solve, because I’m rich and those diseases don’t affect me.”

Americans disagree, as evidenced by the tremendous sacrifices so many have made to save lives.

And yet, we’re charging only $2,340-$3,120 for remdesivir. That does not mean we agree that the benefit remdesivir offers is only worth $3,120. Far from it – our price is about 20-fold less than it is worth just based on its odds of saving lives. And remdesivir’s clinical trials also show it can probably cut the length of hospital stays for COVID-19 patients by an average of four days. In the US, that means about $12,000 in savings per patient. [Clarification: 5:51 pm PT July 14. An earlier version said remdesivir clinical trials show it cuts average length of hospital stays by an average of four days. It has been amended to say “it probably can cut” the length of hospital stays by an average of four days.–LT]

Given how expensive drug development is, how can we afford to underprice our innovation? Fortunately, Gilead remains profitable enough from our past successes that we can deeply discount remdesivir to ensure that all patients get access quickly.

Since Gilead is the biotech adult in the room, let me be clear to the scores of younger, unprofitable, scrappy biotechs out there fighting COVID-19: do as we say, not as we do … for everyone’s sake.

Most small biotechs are supported by investors (which include teachers’ and firefighters’ pension funds, not just billionaires). Their drugs may combine with remdesivir to save even more lives or may even displace remdesivir altogether. Most of those companies cannot afford to underprice their drugs, and they should not.

If investors thought that those companies would have to follow our example, they could very well decide to invest elsewhere. Without the promise of an adequate financial return, these companies would be entirely reliant on government funding. If that seems like a good idea, then you have not spent any time in either industry or the NIH. The government cannot keep up with the thriving, creative innovation engine that private capital has made possible. The NIH funds basic science, yet the drug industry funds the extremely expensive clinical trials and drug development required to turn ideas into products, investing well over $100 billion each year.

That’s not to take away anything from taxpayers. Nothing would be possible without taxpayers.  Gilead is able to be the successful company it is because of US roads, the rule of law, public schools, a science-based FDA, and yes, even some taxpayer subsidies for projects like repurposing remdesivir for COVID-19 after it originally fell short as an Ebola medicine. But all of that government support, necessary as it is, isn’t sufficient to actually create remdesivir.

American taxpayers have elevated private enterprise to Mount Everest’s base camp, already a great height. And yet, taxpayers do not fund the climb to the peak. That’s achieved by the market offering incentives to those who succeed. Without taxpayer support for the foundation on which the biomedical innovation industry exists, there would be no innovation. But without adequate returns for private funding of development, there would be no products.

With profits of only 10-12% of all drug industry revenues, taxpayers would have to spend about 90% of what society spends now to preserve the drug industry as a tax-funded non-profit. Of course, those profits also incentivize talented scientists. Good luck retaining those brilliant people when other for-profit sectors offer them a piece of their profits through valuable stock. As it is, software, real estate, and finance have higher profit margins than the drug industry, so they can entice a lot of talent away.

We will all get more video games and financial instruments, but fewer medicines.

You might think that pharma could cut its sales and marketing budgets, but how will the world know about a useful new drug if nobody spends the time educating physicians and patients about it? Sure, there’s some fat here and there in our industry, and shareholders are constantly pushing companies like ours to find it and cut it. But there isn’t room for us to cut prices by as much as we have cut remdesivir’s if we want to continue to support and incentivize the level of innovation we have today.

So, treat remdesivir as a special case, please. Were all companies obliged to follow our example, the drug industry would become a high-risk/low-reward proposition. Investors would flee, academia would prove itself unequal to the task of developing drugs, and our drug armamentarium would be frozen in its current state. Our kids would have healthcare no better than ours.

The remdesivir case warns us about what is wrong with America’s insurance system. We need insurance reform so that health insurance does what it is supposed to do – pool the risk over large populations of people, so that healthy people are paying the bills for those who are sick. All of us and those we love will become patients at some point, so it’s in society’s interest to ensure fair and equal access to care.

There is no time to fix the systemic problems with US health insurance this week, or this month, so we are expediently making this pricing concession right now. But we urge all other drug companies not to follow our example.

If you invent a drug that advances our standard of care, it is imperative for the preservation of innovation that you confidently charge a price that will generate a return for you and your shareholders and incentivize others to risk their time and money to climb even higher. Congress should anticipate these breakthroughs in the coming months and be prepared to acknowledge their value. Better that America spend tens of billions on medicines that let everyone live normal lives than trillions countering economic depression as everyone hides from a viral terror.

Peter Kolchinsky, a biotechnology investor and scientist, is Managing Partner of RA Capital Management, L.P., and author of The Great American Drug Deal. He is not affiliated with Gilead in any way, RA Capital Management does not currently have a position in Gilead, and this letter represents his own views and is not actually intended to represent Gilead’s views.

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