HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden to Begin Vaccine Donations Abroad

The Biden administration is poised to announce which countries will get the first shipments of vaccines donated from the U.S.’s stockpile, amid the risk that more coronavirus variants will arise in countries lacking access to the vaccines, people familiar with the matter said.

The White House, which has faced pressure from a range of countries to share its vaccines, has settled on its plan and an announcement is imminent, according to the people, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

The planned recipients weren’t immediately disclosed. The U.S. has said it’ll send at least some of its doses to the Covax initiative, the World Health Organization’s effort to buy and distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income nations. The U.S. has been consulting with Covax on its plan, one official said.

The administration’s announcement will stop short of the full 80 million vaccines President Joe Biden said he’ll share this month. Instead, it will focus on the U.S. supply of shots made by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, which are authorized for use. Biden has said the U.S. will donate “at least” 20 million of those by the end of June.

Biden has also promised to donate 60 million AstraZeneca vaccines by the end of June, but those efforts have been hamstrung by a Food and Drug Administration safety review. The president won’t ship out the AstraZeneca doses until they get cleared by the FDA, the people said.

“The most urgent and important thing we can do is start sharing doses in a matter of days to weeks,” said Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. “The faster we move, the faster we can stop playing this game of whack-a-mole.” Read more from Josh Wingrove.

Covax Needs More Doses: Covax is struggling to get hold of vaccines, hindering a return to normal across the globe in the near future. So far, it’s been able to deliver about 78 million shots, or 4% of the 1.95 billion doses administered globally. At every turn, it’s been stymied by pharmaceutical companies drawing out negotiations and countries hoarding doses and raw materials. Most recently, Covax has been buffeted by an export ban imposed by the world’s biggest vaccine producer, India, which is experiencing a devastating second wave of Covid. As a result, it will reach the midpoint of the year about 190 million doses short of where it expected to be. Stephanie Baker, James Paton and Ekow Dontoh have more.

On Lawmakers’ Radars

Drug Pricing Advocates Push Polls to Centrists: Advocates for empowering the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies are promoting surveys showing the policy is popular in four key states in an attempt to pressure lawmakers on the issue, Alex Ruoff reports.

More than 80% of likely voters in Arizona, Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia support drug price negotiation legislation, according to polls by West Health and the polling and public affairs firm, Global Strategy Group. Importantly, the states are home to Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)—seen as key players in the Senate for drug pricing legislation.

Manchin and Sinema have bucked their party on major issues and Menendez has opposed some drug price negotiation legislation in the past. Groups pushing for passage of H.R. 3, House Democratic leadership’s flagship drug pricing bill, such as Protect Our Care, held events with local lawmakers from New Jersey and West Virginia showcasing the poll results yesterday. Read the survey results here.

AbbVie Questioned on U.S. Taxes: AbbVie, already under attack by congressional Democrats for its drug-pricing practices, is facing more questions from the Senate Finance Committee chairman over how it consistently loses money in the U.S. and doesn’t pay more in taxes. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a letter to its CEO, Richard Gonzalez, that the company reported a U.S. pretax loss of $4.5 billion in 2020 and foreign pre-tax profits of $7.9 billion. Read more from David Voreacos.

Bill Seeks to Address Health Worker Shortage: House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill to permanently authorize the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program, according to a statement. The bill comes as public health groups warn the U.S. faces a shortage of at least 54,000 primary care and specialty doctors in the next decade. Read text of the bill here.

  • Nominations: Meanwhile, Murray’s committee announced it will hold a hearing June 8 to consider the nominations of Dawn O’Connell to be assistant secretary for preparedness and response and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon to be assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at HHS.

More on the Pandemic

Biden Renews Vaccine Push Amid Falling Demand: Biden announced a plan to work with churches, schools, businesses, and celebrities to broaden U.S. vaccine uptake, as demand for shots continue to falter. The Biden administration called for a national month of action, including initiatives such as free child care for people getting vaccinated, extended hours at pharmacies and phone banking to encourage people to get inoculated.

“It’s clearer than ever, the more people we get vaccinated, the more success we’re going to have in our fight against the virus,” Biden said. He also warned those who aren’t vaccinated that they could suffer long-term effects from Covid-19. “If you’re vaccinated, you’re protected. If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not protected.”

Biden has set a target of giving 70% of U.S. adults at least one shot by July 4. About 62.9% have received at least one dose so far. Biden is currently on pace to achieve that target, barring a sharp new slowdown. The administration’s new effort comes as the pace of U.S. vaccinations has slowed to the lowest level since January, when vaccines were in short supply. Josh Wingrove and Jenny Leonard have more.

  • Meanwhile, ports across the U.S. are offering vaccines to seafarers, extending a lifeline to thousands of mostly foreign workers who’ve spent the pandemic isolated aboard vessels ensuring goods kept trading across a battered global economy. From L.A. to Boston to Houston, health officials and nonprofits are boarding container ships, tankers and other cargo carriers to administer one-dose Johnson & Johnson shots. Read more from Brendan Murray.

Lab Theory’s Revival Risks Upending China Detente: Of all the issues that have roiled ties between China and the West since the pandemic began, none has been more sensitive in Beijing than questions over Covid-19’s origins. For instance, last year China responded to Australia’s demand for an investigation with tariffs on its barley and wine. That made Biden’s revival of the Wuhan lab leak theory last week much more meaningful, coming at a tense time in U.S.-China relations. Read more from Bloomberg News.

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What Else to Know

Fate of ACA in Limbo at High Court: The Supreme Court is expected to release a decision any day now on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, a verdict that could create chaos if the signature health-care law is invalidated and make 30 million people lose their coverage, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. But legal scholars on both sides of the ideological line doubt the justices will go that far. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

Altria Fights to Defend Juul Stake: The maker of Marlboro cigarettes is facing off against federal antitrust officials as it seeks to salvage what’s left of its almost $13 billion investment in vaping company Juul Labs from a government lawsuit aiming to unwind the deal. The Federal Trade Commission said Altria’s 2018 investment in Juul broke antitrust laws by eliminating competition between the companies in the e-cigarette marketplace.

The FTC said during the virtual hearing yesterday that the transaction was based on an illegal agreement: Juul insisted that Altria had to stop competing with its e-cigarette products, which Altria did right before the deal was announced. “Before exiting the e-cigarette business, Altria competed aggressively with Juul,” said FTC lawyer Stephen Rodger. If not for the deal, “Altria would be competing in the U.S. e-cigarette market today.” David McLaughlin and Tiffany Kary have more.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@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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