A European Official Reveals a Secret: The U.S. Is Paying More for Coronavirus Vaccines

But the price difference is negligible considering the enormous economic consequences of the pandemic.

A newly set up vaccination center in Hamburg, Germany. Pending approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the E.U. plans to deliver the first batch of vaccines to each of its members’ capitals on Dec. 26.
Axel Heimken/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The European Union appears to have paid less than the United States for some of the coronavirus vaccines it secured, according to confidential pricing data that was released in a seeming blunder.

A Belgian government minister released, then quickly deleted, a Twitter post late Thursday containing prices that the European Union has negotiated to pay pharmaceutical companies for coronavirus vaccines.

The prices had been kept secret by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, which is negotiating on behalf of its 27 member states and ordering doses for the 410 million people living in the vast region, where cases have been surging.

European nations tend to pay substantially lower prices for most drugs than patients in the United States. But the coronavirus vaccines are unusual because the United States government negotiated prices and has arranged to buy doses for every American directly, unlike most medications, where the United States government has a limited role, and individual insurance companies bargain with drugmakers.

The higher U.S. price may reflect a less aggressive negotiating stance from American officials, who were eager to encourage several pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine development — and a desire to put the United States first in line for doses when they were available. Those financial incentives appear to have worked: No vaccine has ever before been developed so quickly.

The new information emerged days before the European Union is expected to approve its first vaccine for use across the region, which will set off an ambitious and logistically challenging inoculation campaign.

The price list, briefly released by Belgium’s budget state secretary, Eva De Bleeker, showed that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is set for approval on Monday in the bloc and is being administered in the United States and Britain, will cost 12 euros, or $14.7, per dose, bringing the cost per person to €24, as each person is supposed to receive two doses.

That is markedly lower than the company’s official price, which has been announced at $19.5 per dose, which is also what the United States government paid. Rollout of the Pfizer vaccine began in the United States this week.

The Moderna vaccine, which is the next in line for E.U. approval, on Jan. 6, and is expected to receive authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use on Friday, is costing the E.U. $18 per dose, the table showed. The company had said it was looking to charge $25 to $37 per dose.

Eric Mamer, a European Commission spokesman, declined to comment on the price list, saying that the negotiated agreements were “covered by confidentiality,” but did not dispute the pricing.

A spokesman for Ms. De Bleeker said that she had tweeted the details to settle a political debate in Belgium, where opposition politicians are accusing the government of not setting aside enough money to buy the vaccines.

“We were trying to be transparent, but it seems we were a bit too transparent,” Bavo De Mol, the spokesman, said.

Several health economists have noted that the price of the vaccine itself — even if the United States is paying more than Europe — is trivial compared with the economic cost of a continuing pandemic. Just this week, Congress is preparing to authorize payments of $600 to every American adult to cushion the blow of the pandemic-driven recession, far more than the $39 per person it will take to vaccinate adults at the higher Pfizer price.

“The cost of overpaying is so small relative to the potential counterfactual,” said Benedic Ippolito, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who studies drug prices. “It’s like a shrug your shoulder situation where, OK, our price is a little higher. This is a one-time pandemic, and we’ll deal with the drug pricing situation later.”

But now that it is public, the price discrepancy may influence negotiations over future batches of vaccines.

The secrecy around the European prices was part of the negotiation, E.U. officials said, although they acknowledged that the demands for transparency around the vaccine deals were legitimate.

“We would not have had those contracts if we did not have the confidentiality clause inserted,” Mr. Mamer said. “It is a relevant debate, we are not questioning this. This was a part of the process to conclude those contracts, and we are not in a position to change it now,” he added.

The European Union ordered more vaccines from most providers than the U.S., partly because the bloc’s total population is bigger. In the case of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, the E.U. secured 200 million vaccines with an option to tap the same deal for more down the line.

Other prices on the list released by the Belgian minister included 1.78 euro per dose for the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine; $8.50 per dose for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine; 7.56 euros for the Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline; and 10 euros for the Curevac. Some of these vaccines are far behind in development, and their advance purchasing agreements may never be activated or may take much longer; the contract the E.U. signed with them will become active only if their vaccines work.

In authorizing the E.U. to strike one comprehensive deal on behalf of its 27 member nations, the governments pooled negotiating capital and clout as a bloc, the bloc’s leadership says.

Provided the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved Monday, the E.U. plans to deliver the first batch of vaccines to each of its members’ capitals on Dec. 26, and to start rolling out inoculation across the bloc immediately after.

Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels; Margot Sanger-Katz reported from Washington.

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