A letter from the US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) in July 2023 to COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers expressed appreciation for their services and called for continued efforts as part of the COVID-19 response. Xavier Becerra, who has been in post since 2021, began by acknowledging the “record pace” of the process, from development to distribution.  

“To put it simply, you have been an instrumental part of a vaccination campaign that has saved millions of lives.”  

In particular, the Secretary commented on the “collaboration and dedication” to the collective mission, which he stated remains a “significant public health priority” for both the current administration and HHS. However, he also emphasised the need for “reasonable” pricing amid concerns that vaccine giants are taking advantage of current attitudes to the pandemic.  

US commitment to health 

The letter begins with a heavy emphasis on the US government’s commitment to “maximising access” to COVID-19 medical interventions. Becerra highlights that, although some have made the decision to mentally move on from pandemic countermeasures, “many people are still at risk”. Furthermore, millions continue to experience the “longer-term effects” of the virus, a largely under-studied cause for concern.  

As the government makes the transition to the “next phase of our response”, Becerra demands continued “innovation and expertise” to ensure “equitable access to lifesaving products”.  

“HHS is working to ensure a smooth transition of COVID-19 vaccines to more traditional pathways for procurement, distribution, and payment.” 

The Secretary stated his expectation that “vaccines will remain available in the types of locations where the public currently receives them”. Furthermore, he expects vaccine manufacturers that are planning to offer updated COVID-19 vaccines are “preparing an ample supply of doses” for the upcoming 2023-2024 vaccination campaign to support “wide and timely access”. Additionally, there is an expectation that manufacturers will “remain ready” for potential surges in demand amid the “evolving circumstances”. He advised manufacturers to plan updated supply and regulatory submissions so that the FDA can act, and the CDC can make recommendations by late September.  

Eliminating hurdles 

Secretary Becerra called on manufacturers to “look to the example” set by the US government in “eliminating access hurdles” for the American public. Thanks to “billions of dollars in research, development, and procurement” of vaccines, as well as “federally sponsored research”, he believes that the government has facilitated a more equitable approach.  

“Vaccines entering the market this fall should be priced at a reasonable rate, reflective of the value that you have obtained through US government investment.” 

The Secretary condemned any attempt to unfairly increase prices. 

“Price gouging behaviour takes advantage of the trust the American people have placed in you through the COVID-19 response.”  

Thus, he anticipates collaboration with the Centres for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and other payors to ensure they are equipped with the necessary information to make payments for vaccines in the autumn.  

Accuracy is everything 

As well as fair pricing, Secretary Becerra called for the continuation of sharing “accurate and timely data” to encourage “equitable access”. So far during the response, HHS has used distribution and administration data to “spotlight communities” that might have been left behind and to “enhance distribution efforts”.  

“As ordering and distribution transitions to more traditional pathways, HHS asks you to find sustainable ways to enable continued visibility of the provider network and availability of vaccines.” 
The Bridge Access Programme 

HHS has announced the “Bridge Access Programme for COVID-19 Vaccines and Treatments”, intended to provide access to vaccines and treatments for adults “without other sources of coverage”. One element of this programme is expected to provide support for the “existing public sector vaccine safety net”. Through this, the CDC will purchase vaccines from the manufacturers. Another part of the programme is designed to facilitate access to vaccines that were previously committed to uninsured adults, as well as those whose insurance does not fully cover COVID-19 vaccination.  

“This critical piece of the programme can only function well with your support and provision of vaccines.” 

Secretary Becerra refers to “numerous conversations” that give him reason to assume that manufacturers are “as committed” as HHS. 

“HHS looks forward to continuing to build our relationship and working closely with you in the coming weeks.” 

Do you think this letter will be sufficient discouragement to manufacturers’ price gouging? How will other countries fare as they ask the same of manufacturers? Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for more updates like this.