One thing the nation's top health official would not promise Congress Wednesday about the novel coronavirus -- that a vaccine or treatment will be affordable to anyone.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and 44 other lawmakers had written to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to ask whether, since much of the research for vaccines is funded by the federal government, any treatment or vaccine would be guaranteed to be affordable to anyone who may need it.
With Azar testifying before the House Appropriations Committee on the federal response to the deadly disease, Schakowsky asked him in person.
Azar, the past president of drug giant Eli Lilly, declined to offer the reassurance she sought.
"We absolutely share your passion around ensuring affordable access to medicine, but the private sector must have a role in this," Azar said. "We will not have vaccine, we will not have therapeutics without the private sector candidates [for treatments] that they and we will have to invest in."
Schakowsky pressed him on whether the government had paid for all the research and development going into such drugs, and he denied that it had, although he admitted the treatments in the works had stemmed from basic research funded through the National Institutes for Health. He said private companies were advancing the candidates, though.
Still, she was more concerned about extracting a pledge that anyone who needed it would be able to get treatment or vaccines.
"If I could just reaffirm, you're saying, for sure, it will be affordable for anyone who needs it," the lawmaker said.
He was not saying that.
"I'm saying we would want to ensure we that work to make it affordable, but we can't control that price because we need the private sector to invest," said Azar. "Price controls won't get us there."
Azar's statement attracted viral attention on Twitter.
Soon Democrats piled on, hammering Azar for the idea that poor or uninsured people would be left to fend for themselves so that large pharmaceutical companies could profit.
“Let’s be clear, public health, not corporate profits, must be the number one focus of our coronavirus response," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who is generally regarded as supportive of drug companies.
"A vaccine that’s just for rich people won’t do much to protect public health,” Murray said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has hammered Trump for not seeking enough resources to deal with coronavirus, seized on Azar's comments to push his own plan -- including making treatment affordable.
More lawmakers chimed in later, with 2020 presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ripping Azar's comments as "outrageous."
"We should use every tool at our disposal, including government manufacturing or contracting if necessary, to make this vaccine available to everyone who needs it," Warren said in a statement posted to Twitter. "Former Pharma lobbyist Azar should stop putting profits ahead of people's lives."
Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) was even blunter in her own Twitter post.
"This is disgusting. We are facing a pandemic, and the administration is already threatening to deny patients a Coronavirus vaccine?!" Maloney said. "Sec. Azar must immediately retract this statement, and reassure the American people that their health and safety come FIRST."
Azar's stance also did not go over well with Leslie Dach, a former health and Human Services official who coordinated the Ebola response in the Obama administration.
"It's no surprise that a former Pharma executive would put drug company profits above public health," said Dach, now the chair of healthcare advocacy group Protect Our Care. "It’s outrageous that we would deny a vaccine to people in need so that drug companies can boost their bottom lines."
"It's just another reason why we need legislation like H.R.3 that puts people above profits," she added, referring a bill passed in the House in December that aims to push down prescription drug prices.
Schakowsky herself noted that she asked Azar repeatedly about affordability, but he never pledged to ensure that.