HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Astra Vaccine 79% Effective in U.S.

AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine fared better than expected in a U.S. clinical trial, providing reassurance about its safety and efficacy.

The shot developed with the University of Oxford was 79% effective in preventing Covid-19, and an independent monitoring board found no safety concerns, the company said today. The shot also protected all those immunized from severe disease and death in a study of more than 30,000 volunteers.

The findings should bolster confidence in the product after confusion over its true efficacy and the best dosing regimen impacted take-up. The vaccine has faced numerous setbacks, most recently over supply issues and possible side effects. Even after the European Medicines Agency declared it safe last Thursday, not all European Union countries have resumed vaccination on concern about reports of blood clots.

The vaccine is particularly important to the global effort to end the pandemic because it’s easy to store and transport and the company is providing it at no profit during the crisis. Unlike vaccines from Pfizer and partner BioNTech, and Moderna, which have to be kept frozen, the Astra shot can be held at fridge temperature. Read more from James Paton and Suzi Ring.

Happening on the Hill

House Drug Pricing Bills on Hold for Now: Passage of two measures meant to address drug prices will have to wait as House leaders grapple over Congress’ schedule. The House was expected to take up the two measures along with more than a dozen others under suspension of their rules, used largely to wave through minor or non-controversial legislation, earlier last week, but Republican lawmakers signaled they planned to object, according to a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Alex Ruoff reports. The House has not floor activity scheduled for this week, and is scheduled for a recess the following two weeks.

One the bills (S. 415) would alter the criteria for a drug to receive exclusivity as a new chemical entity, narrowing which medicines get a five-year monopoly. That measure would help lower drug costs by boosting competition and closing loopholes that prevent generics from coming to market. The other bill (S. 164) would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a central website for educational materials on biosimilars. Both bills passed the Senate earlier this month.

House Passes Bill to Skirt Medicare Cuts: The House passed legislation that would prevent the need for $36 billion in cuts to Medicare next year triggered under a “Pay-As-You-Go” law because there were no spending offsets in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. The vote was 246-175. Democrats said they supported waiving the requirement for sequestration after the Republican 2017 tax cuts, and called on Republicans to do the same this time. Sixty votes will be needed in the Senate to advance the bill, Catherine Dodge and Jack Fitzpatrick report.

Democrats Target Sackler Family: New legislation introduced by two House Democrats aims to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid crisis and ensure they don’t invoke bankruptcy to skirt responsibility. “The Sackler Act would hold members of the Sackler family accountable for their significant role in fueling an opioid crisis that has claimed nearly half a million lives,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said. Catherine Dodge has more.

Hearings on the Hill:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a hearing today on Democrats’ $312 billion infrastructure package investing in climate, broadband, and public health. Former CDC Director Tom Frieden is expected to testify.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled tomorrow to hold a hearing on Samantha Power’s nomination to be administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee scheduled a hearing tomorrow on legislation to expand the Affordable Care Act.
  • The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s Primary Health and Retirement Security Subcommittee plans to hold a hearing tomorrow on drug prices. The hearing is titled, “Why Does the U.S. Pay the Highest Prices in the World for Prescription Drugs?”
  • The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee plans a hearing Thursday to look at private equity’s role in heath care, which will likely touch on health care prices and surprise billing practices.

More Headlines:

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden Says U.S. May Double His Vaccine Goal: Biden said the U.S. may be able to administer 200 million doses of coronavirus vaccine in the first 100 days of his presidency, twice the initial goal that he reached on Friday. The U.S. “may be able to double it” if it keeps its current pace of vaccinations, he said at the White House when asked about his 100-million goal. “But we’ve met the goal and continue to move forward.” Biden has said he could make public a new goal this week. Read more from Jennifer Epstein and Josh Wingrove.

HHS Eyes More Funds for Domestic Vaccine Production: The federal government is looking to better understand what domestic capacity exists for vaccine production—the raw materials needed to make them, the supplies used to make them, and how all those could be expanded, the General Services Administration said. An HHS agency, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, issued a request for information Friday to find the gaps that exist in pharmaceutical supply chains—and how those could be filled by domestic companies. Read more from Shira Stein.

Obama Alum Nominated to Oversee Pandemic Readiness: Biden plans to nominate Dawn O’Connell, an Obama administration alumna and leader in responding to emerging infectious diseases, to serve as the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, according to the White House Friday. O’Connell would be responsible for leading the primary HHS agency that prepares for and works to halt pandemics and biohazard attacks. Read more from Shira Stein.

CDC Says Schools Can Allow 3 Feet of Distance: Schools can allow social distancing of three feet, instead of six currently, between students in classrooms, the CDC said Friday in what’s poised to be a boost to reopening of schools nationwide. The CDC continues to recommend six feet of distance for when children are eating, or during activities involving increased exhalation, such as singing, band or sports. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

  • The new guidelines will likely intensify pressure on teachers’ unions that are resisting a return to in-class learning. The issue is a tightrope for Biden, who’s refined his vow that most schools would open within the first 100 days of his presidency. That vow devolved to just K-8 schools, and narrowed further to at least one day a week, leaving Democrats vulnerable to Republican messaging targeting suburban parents. Nic Querolo has more.

Pandemic Cost NIH Billions in Delayed Research: The National Institutes of Health delayed and lost about $16 billion worth of research due to the pandemic, the agency said Friday. That amount constitutes more than a third of the NIH’s current spending level of $42.9 billion. It’s a $6 billion increase from the amount agency director Francis Collins estimated last May when he told a Senate panel the pandemic will cost about $10 billion. Jeannie Baumann has more.

Hunt for Covid’s Origin Points to China Animal Trade: Scientists tracing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic believe they’ve identified a possible transmission source: China’s thriving wildlife trade. The highly anticipated findings from experts convened by the World Health Organization and the Chinese government are expected to show parallels to the spawning in 2002 of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a bat-borne coronavirus spread by civets that killed 800 people. The path trod by SARS-CoV-2 — as the new coronavirus is known — before it emerged in central China in December 2019 remains a mystery, though it’s one researchers say can be solved. Read more from Jason Gale and Corinne Gretler.

More U.S. Headlines:

More Global Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Low Flu Rates Challenge Next Season’s Shot: This year’s flu shot may not work as well as in previous years because plunging influenza levels—ironically, due to mask-wearing and other steps to tamp down the coronavirus—means there’s a lot less data for picking strains for this fall’s flu season. Infectious disease professionals say people should still get the shot because any level of protection will still lessen the severity of an infection, and could keep them out of hospitals and intensive care units. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Groups Too Late to Join Abortion Rule Case: The U.S. Supreme Court must deny requests by anti-abortion groups and 19 states to join a case testing a Trump administration rule that bars federally funded family planning providers from referring clients for abortion, the U.S. and the rule’s challengers said. Acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran, Baltimore, the American Medical Association and 21 states stipulated to the dismissal of the three consolidated cases on March 12, the parties told the nation’s high court. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Alex Ruoff

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

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

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