Washington, D.C. (TheStreet) — Pfizer (Stock Quote: PFE), Merck (Stock Quote: MRK) and GlaxoSmithKline (Stock Quote: GSK) got an early Christmas gift after the U.S. Senate defeated an amendment that would have allowed the importation of drugs from abroad.
Among the opponents was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Thirty Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), 17 Republicans and one independent voted against the measure. Originally, there were 28 Republicans and no Democrats opposed to the amendment.
The federal government, the biggest buyer of pharmaceuticals, would have saved $19 billion if the amendment had passed.
The savings are easy to see. Popular drugs such as Pfizer's cholesterol-fighting Lipitor can be obtained for 87 Canadian cents per 10-mg tablet. In the U.S., Costco sells it for $2.91. Zocor, Merk's cholesterol drug, can be bought for 77 Canadian cents versus Costco's $2.93. GlaxoSmithKline's Advair Diskus can be had for 46 Canadian dollars, while Americans must shell out $169.
Conservative advocacy group RetireSafe had said the "importation amendment is poised to open our borders, allowing our safe, closed drug system to be breached, and our health endangered."
But the safety argument doesn't hold water. First, many drugs are manufactured abroad. The U.S. government recently ordered 7.6 million doses of a swine-flu vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline, which is based in the U.K. In addition, the ingredients themselves are often bought from outside the U.S.