HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Alexander Pitches Outbreak Readiness Plan

The chairman of a Senate health committee wants Congress to bolster domestic production of vaccines, commit funding to federal health research, and improve the nation’s disease surveillance system, a vision he laid out in a paper released yesterday.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is aiming to prepare for the next possible outbreak of a deadly virus with what lawmakers have learned from the current pandemic to help beef up public health in the U.S. And congressional leaders are already considering some of his ideas, such as how to create a disease-tracking workforce in states’ public health agencies.

“In this internet age attention spans are short. Even with an event as significant as COVID-19, memories fade and attention moves quickly to the next crisis,” he wrote in a statement yesterday. “That makes it imperative that Congress act on needed changes this year in order to better prepare for the next pandemic.”

Alexander’s paper is a jumping off point for a package of legislation his committee will be developing with the goal of passage later this year, a spokesman for the senator said. Alexander is retiring at the end of this Congress.

Ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement that she is supportive of Alexander’s goal, but not at the expense of addressing problems that have stemmed from the spread of the coronavirus, including the growth in unemployment, shortages of medical supplies to health workers, and funds for contact tracing and testing efforts.

Senate Democrats, including Murray, are also interested in taking on overhauls not covered in Alexander’s report, such as increasing funding for a wider range of health programs, fighting misinformation, and addressing health disparities, two Senate Democratic aides said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Photographer: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo/Bloomberg
Alexander on May 7

Congressional Virus Efforts

FDA Pushed to Move Quicker to Vet Tests: House lawmakers are pushing the FDA to more quickly review the quality of almost 200 antibody tests on the market that are designed to show if someone has already been exposed to Covid-19. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s consumer policy panel, said he is worried some of the unreviewed tests are “junk tests” that the FDA is allowing to be sold. He also expressed concern that people believe falsely that a positive antibody test means they are immune to the virus. Read more from Jacquie Lee, Alex Ruoff and Kristen V. Brown.

Senators Fault Federal Probes Into Virus Scams: Democratic and Republican senators said yesterday they are annoyed at the slow pace of U.S. prosecutions of scams exploiting the trillions of dollars in government relief funds to combat the coronavirus crisis. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Senate Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said at a panel hearing on the law enforcement response to those exploiting the coronavirus outbreak. Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was frustrated with the explanations being given by the Justice Department. Read more from Chris Strohm.

FDA Misled Senators on China’s Role: The FDA had to walk back testimony by an agency official at a Senate hearing last week after he downplayed the scale of China’s dominance of the drug supply chain in the U.S. The issue has come to the fore as the coronavirus outbreak has prompted some lawmakers and the Trump administration to question China’s role as the global supplier of key ingredients. The FDA claims it’s able to police the safety of the U.S. drug supply regardless of where it comes from.

When asked by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on how much of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in drugs in the U.S. are produced in China, Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for regulatory programs in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said “for active pharmaceutical ingredients, the U.S provides about 28%, China about 13% and India 18%.” The problem with his response was that those figures are for the number of API facilities in China and India that export ingredients to the U.S., not the volume they ship, the FDA said. Read more from Anna Edney.

Trump ‘Project Air Bridge’ Probe Eyed: Senate Democrats yesterday formally requested an investigation into the Trump administration’s effort to obtain and distribute personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to combat the coronavirus crisis. The project, titled Air Bridge, “has been marked by delays, incompetence, confusion, and secrecy involving multiple federal agencies and actors,” the senators wrote in a letter to Michael Horowitz, the acting chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. Greg Sullivan has more.

Letters & Legislation:

Treatment, Testing & Coordination

Fauci Says Covid Pandemic ‘Worst Nightmare,’ Far From Over: The top U.S. infectious disease specialist called the coronavirus pandemic his “worst nightmare” and warned that the deadly outbreak is far from over. In just a few months, Covid-19 has devastated countries around the world, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said yesterday in online comments to the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, an industry group. Societies, businesses and economies have all suffered as people have sequestered themselves to prevent the spread of the virus and inundation of health systems with severely ill patients. Now that some nations and states are emerging from lockdowns, there’s still a risk that the virus will also return, Fauci said.

The infection won’t “burn itself out with mere public health measures,” he said. “We’re going to need a vaccine for the entire world, billions and billions of doses.” Read more from John Lauerman and Riley Griffin.

U.S. Sees Meeting Mask Demand to November: The U.S. is expected to have a supply of at least 180 million N95 respirator respirator masks each month from August through October, exceeding the need for about 160 million in that three-month period, according to the White House projections for personal protective equipment needs. The projections, created by the administration’s Supply Chain Task Force and released by Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-N.H.) office, also estimate needs for gowns, surgical masks, gloves, and face shields. Read more from Shira Stein.

Funds on Way to Health Providers for Poor: HHS is distributing about $25 billion to doctors and health centers that primarily treat low-income and uninsured patients to combat the coronavirus. The hospitals and doctors that are primarily paid by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program and haven’t had a direct conduit for Covid-19 relief since Congress cleared a health provider stimulus package in April because Medicaid and CHIP are run by states. Read more from Fawn Johnson.

WHO Official Downplays Asymptomatic Spread Remark: A top World Health Organization official sought to downplay her comments on Monday that Covid-19’s spread via asymptomatic people is “very rare,” an assessment that revived controversy over transmission routes. In a livestream on social media to take public questions yesterday, Maria Van Kerkhove said her comments referred to two to three studies that’ve been published and that try to follow asymptomatic cases over time and look at all their contacts to see how many additional people were infected. Jeff Sutherland and Corinne Gretler have more.

Covid Test or Self-Quarantine Urged Before Non-Emergency Surgery: The Trump administration is recommending health-care facilities provide non-emergency care in areas of the country that are in the second phase of their reopening plans. Its recommendations were published yesterday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and focus on getting care for patients without access to telehealth, with serious underlying health conditions, or those at risk from complications without in-person care. Read more from Shira Stein.

Price Limits Will Scare Off Covid Vaccine Makers, Fauci Warns: The federal government shouldn’t force drug companies to lower the costs of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments but should encourage fair pricing, Anthony S. Fauci said yesterday. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the National Institutes of Health, said “the one thing that is clear is that if you try to enforce things on a company that has multiple, different opportunities to do different things, they will walk away.” Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

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What Else to Know Today

Trump Agency Appeals Abortion Decision: The administration is appealing a decision that bars it from enforcing a new rule requiring health insurers to bill their consumers separately for coverage for abortion services, it told a federal court in Washington state. HHS Secretary Alex Azar filed a notice of appeal this week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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