Congressional negotiators as of Tuesday afternoon have not finalized a multi-billion-dollar supplemental spending bill to respond to the coronavirus outbreak in the US, and a final sticking point revolves around how to make an eventual vaccine affordable, according to senators and aides in each party.
"Democrats have been pushing for strong provisions to ensure the vaccine is available and affordable to everyone who needs it," said a Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations.
But some Republicans are worried that any sort of price controls on the vaccine could curb a robust market-based response by pharmaceutical companies to find a cure.
"I don't think it's a legitimate sticking point. There is not an example of a vaccine developed for a pandemic that's ever not been made available in a reasonable way to people," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who chairs the health subcommittee on appropriations.
Top negotiators from across Congress and from both parties have worked for days to pull together funding package to combat the disease. It still remains to be seen how much the deal will be worth. But sources told CNN over the weekend it could exceed $7 billion, a level far higher than the $2.5 billion White House request. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed $8.5 billion to deal with the outbreak last week.
The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee said Tuesday that Democrats are wary of drug companies earning big profits from a vaccine.
"In our discussion in the Appropriations Committee, we have talked about the fact that millions and millions of dollars -- possibly hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars -- are going to go into developing the vaccine and test kits," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. "We are not going to say to the drug companies after the taxpayers have paid for this, now go out and make a huge profit. That's not going to happen."
The top Republican on the Appropriations Committee said he hoped to resolve the issue quickly so Congress can pass a bill quickly, possibly by the end of the week.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said making sure poorer Americans can afford the vaccine is a top priority for him.
"I really believe that no one, no American, should be denied vaccine because they have no money to pay for it. Because this is life or death situation," Shelby said. "I think we can work together and cover a lot of that. I want to do that."
Asked if he was open to setting aside a fund of up to $500 million for such a purpose, he responded: "We are trying to get to yes."
Congressional leaders hope to have a deal by the end of the day Tuesday.
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Vaccine affordability provision a last sticking point in novel coronavirus funding package talks in Congress