In the nation’s capital – the one that Dino Rossi used to quip was “green with money” unlike ours that is “green with trees” – a fight has been playing out for years now between the pharmaceutical industry and a bunch of health care providers over a program called 340B.  

Briefly put, 340B requires pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs to hospital systems, among others, that serve less well-off Americans as a sort of swap for pharmaceutical companies getting access to entitlement monies. The pharmaceutical companies don’t like it because they say it dents their profits; a lot of urban and rural health care providers love it, because it helps them provide cheaper care to their patients or even just keep the doors open.

But it turns out there’s another reason why the program may win new friends and allies in the age of COVID: It’s benefited the University of Washington, which has used its financial resources, including those furnished by 340B, to develop a COVID vaccineVia KING5, in July:

UW Medicine said a coronavirus vaccine it’s developing has shown promising results in mice and monkeys during pre-clinical studies.

The experimental vaccine induced a strong immune response after a single dose and immunity increased over time, Dr. Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology, said Monday. …

The potential vaccine has advantages over other vaccines in development, UW Medicine said. It can be administered after a simple mixing step in a pharmacy and would be quick to manufacture in large quantities.

Several pharmaceutical companies have recently announced vaccines that appear highly effective to combat COVID, but the UW’s version sounds quite simple for pharmacists to mix and administer, relative to others in the news—assuming it pans out.

According to Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health and CEO of the UCLA Hospital System, and Lisa Brandenburg, president of University of Washington Medicine Hospitals & Clinics, if 340B disappeared, the hospitals would together lose more than a combined “$110 million in funds annually.” While that money is allocated to patient care, it certainly frees up money to be spent on other initiatives, like COVID vaccine development. As the saying goes, money is fungible.

With pharmaceutical companies making great headway on a COVID vaccine, there may be newfound interest in Washington, DC, in giving them whatever they want from a menu of policy proposals. But curtailing 340B looks like it could have adverse effects with regard to other COVID vaccines being developed by the likes of the University of Washington, and in this fight, we really need more solutions on the table, not fewer.