HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Bill Aims to Protect Data in Virus Tracing

A planned Senate Republican bill would require tech companies, such as Apple and Google, to obtain consent to collect people’s health or location data as part of a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill, which is expected to be introduced by four Republicans when members return to the Capitol next week, comes as privacy concerns mount over the bulk collection of user data to trace the spread of virus. A draft of the legislation was obtained by Bloomberg and confirmed by two GOP staffers.

The measure, led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), seeks to require certain companies explain “how their data will be handled, to whom it will be transferred and how long it will be retained” when the patient data is first being collected, according to an announcement from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which Wicker heads. The committee has spent months working on a bipartisan bill governing online privacy with little success.

The bill comes as Apple and Google are racing to launch an app project that will give a tool to public health agencies to track the spread of the coronavirus. The technology would let those who test positive for Covid-19 to put their diagnosis into an app. The system would then use Bluetooth technology to notify anyone else who has come into contact with that person of possible exposure.

The alerts wouldn’t reveal who the sick person is and the companies have taken steps to build in privacy protections and prevent the identification of those with the virus. Still the technology companies have faced criticism that the system is collecting too much data, and privacy concerns may get in the way of the broad adoption that would be needed to make the project work. Read more from Ben Brody, Rebecca Kern, and Daniel Stoller.

Contact Tracing Poses ‘Pandora’s Box’ for Reopening Businesses: Businesses looking at smartphone-based tools to track their workers’ contact with people infected with coronavirus will have to walk a delicate tightrope between reopening safely and protecting employee privacy.

Apple and Alphabet‘s Google released initial versions of new virus proximity tracking tools Wednesday so public health agencies can prepare in advance of a mid-May roll out. The applications are designed to use public health information and unique Bluetooth identifiers assigned to devices to notify people when they’ve come into proximity with someone with the virus. Digital contact tracing would supplement analog efforts, in which tracers try to connect the dots via phone calls, in-person screenings, and voluntary disclosures.

Other businesses, like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ford, are developing their own tracking devices as they prepare to eventually reopen offices and factories. Corporate lawyers say businesses are contemplating proximity-tracking wristbands and applications, among other tools to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Employers might require workers to agree to tracking in order to be permitted to return to their workplace when stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted. That could mean trading privacy rights—even when they’re off the clock—to keep their jobs. Read more from Daniel R. Stoller and Paige Smith.

More Testing & Tracing Efforts

Democrats Push for Contact Tracing Strategy: House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Oversight Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a letter yesterday to develop a national Covid-19 contact tracing strategy and increase the nation’s tracing capacity. The three Democrats said the White House lacks a “coordinated and comprehensive plan” on contact tracing and asked if any member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, specifically, is charged with handling U.S. tracing efforts. Read their letter here.

Medicare to Waive More Testing Rules: Medicare beneficiaries may now get tested for Covid-19 if they’re told to do so by a health-care professional, under changes announced yesterday. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it’s temporarily waiving more regulations to give health providers and hospitals more flexibility in their response to the coronavirus crisis. Some of the changes were mandated by the third stimulus legislation that Trump signed into law last month. Read more from Shira Stein.

White House Uses Media’s Test Count, Not CDC’s: The Trump administration is using Covid-19 testing data from a volunteer tracking project led by reporters and not that of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s, according to a strategy document, as the health agency significantly lags in counting how many Americans have been tested. A widespread national testing program will be essential to reopening the country. The White House has been relying in part on the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer effort to collect and track testing data led by Alexis Madrigal, a journalist for The Atlantic. Kristen V. Brown and Emma Court have more.

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Vaccine & Treatment Research

FDA Moving Fast on Gilead Drug: The Food and Drug Administration is moving at “lightning speed” to review data on Gilead Sciences’s experimental remdesivir to treat Covid-19, Commissioner Stephen Hahn said, after results emerged from a key U.S. trial that stirred cautious optimism. “We’re working with the company to emphasize the necessity of speed, while at the same time, to understand the data,” Hahn said in an interview. Read more from Anna Edney.

Gilead may spend $1 billion on its breakthrough treatment for Covid-19 this year alone, CEO Daniel O’Day said. How much revenue — if any — the company expects to generate is another matter. The company has pledged to donate 1.5 million vials of the drug, its entire current supply, while O’Day said it is working with other major pharmaceutical companies to boost production of the medication, which must be given intravenously. The unprecedented pace and nature of the operation has left investors and the analysts who scrutinize corporate performance scrambling to understand what the business will ultimately look like. Read more from Michelle Fay Cortez.

Trump Says Vaccine Project Not Over-Promising: Trump defended the White House’s effort to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine, saying yesterday that the project’s goal to produce 300 million doses by the end of the year isn’t too ambitious. “I’m not over-promising,” Trump said at the White House yesterday. He complained that “if we come up with a vaccine in record time” his critics would say that he should have done it faster. The project aims to hasten vaccine development by testing many different candidates and beginning production before they’ve completed clinical trials simultaneously. Read more from Jordan Fabian.

Amgen Tests Otezla for Treatment: Amgen will investigate the psoriasis drug Otezla as a potential therapy to treat Covid-19, the company announced during its first-quarter earnings. In patients with severe symptoms, it’s believed that an overactive immune system may be at least somewhat to blame. Otezla is being investigated to help treat immune system-related inflammatory diseases other than psoriasis. Researchers are exploring if drugs that help temper the immune response may help to curb the severity of the illness. Read more.

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Government Response & Coordination

Trump Hails Kushner’s Airlift But Details of Sales Are Secret: A program created by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has airlifted millions of gloves, masks and other coveted coronavirus supplies into the U.S. from overseas — but it isn’t clear who’s getting them and at what price, or how much private-sector partners are earning through the arrangement. Kushner’s “Project Airbridge” provides transportation via FedEx and others for supplies that medical distributors, including McKesson and Cardinal Health, buy from overseas manufacturers, mainly in China. Once a supplier’s goods arrive in the U.S., the companies must sell half the order in government-designated hotspots. They sell the rest as they see fit.

The U.S. government provides the air transportation for free, to speed the arrival of the products. The six distributors keep the profits, if any. The program has won praise from some states, where officials say it provided hard-to-find supplies at a critical time in the Covid-19 outbreak, even if it met a fraction of demand. Other governors and lawmakers have raised questions, saying they have no visibility into how supplies are distributed and the government has only limited power to direct it. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Daniel Flatley and Shira Stein.

House Team Backs Doctors Group: A contingent of doctor-friendly lawmakers is looking at giving small-practice doctors a carve out in the next coronavirus bill. Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), both of whom are physicians, said that doctors working in their own practices or as part of small-group practices are among the hardest hit by the losses in patient visits caused by the spread of coronavirus. These practices have had to forgo elective medical procedures, which are typically more lucrative than emergency services, for months and many are in danger of closing. Alex Ruoff has more.

Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday U.S. states and cities alone are seeking up to $1 trillion in aid in the next coronavirus relief bill, a number that may be tough to hit as lawmakers juggle demands to bolster the pandemic-crippled economy.

Pelosi said state governments are still finalizing their request but so far sought $500 billion, while local governments have a similar figure. Lawmakers also are considering other proposals including another round of payments to taxpayers, expanded unemployment insurance, help for renters, and access to broadband.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) indicated openness to targeted state and local aid in the next bill in a press call yesterday. He said that states should be required to open their accounting books and prove that their expenses were virus-related to prevent them from using the funding for other fiscal burdens, such as public employee pension obligations. Read more from Erik Wasson, Billy House and Laura Litvan.

Senators Want More Medical Visas: A bipartisan Senate group said that it will introduce a measure that would temporarily address a shortage of doctors and nurses in the U.S. due to the coronavirus. The proposal would reallocate about 40,000 unused visas already approved in previous years for doctors and nurses, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said in a statement, Megan Howard reports.

Democrats to Host Forum on Pandemic: Reps. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.) will hold a virtual forum at 10 a.m. today on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s role in nation’s pandemic and emergency response. Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is set to join the forum, which will offer members and the public “insight on FEMA’s response to the largest disaster response of the agency’s history,” according to a statement.

  • House Homeland Security Committee lawmakers including Payne and Counterterrorism Subcommittee Chairman Max Rose (D-N.Y.) will also host a virtual forum today with former White House Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain, according to a statement.

HHS Awards $20 Million for Telehealth Access: The federal government will give $20 million to half a dozen national organizations and a university to boost telehealth access for vulnerable groups, including pregnant women and young children. The funding is aimed at increasing infrastructure and helping health-care providers get licensed to provide virtual care across state lines, the HHS said yesterday. Read more from Shira Stein.

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What Else to Know Today

Health Extenders Kicked Down Road in Virus Bill: More than a dozen health programs remain in limbo after again being extended for a short period in the third coronavirus relief law. Lawmakers pushed back until Nov. 30 a deadline—initially set for May 22—that was designed to require action on legislation that would tackle drug pricing or surprise billing. Danielle Parnass has more on the state of play of health extender legislation.

Airlines Enter Face-Mask Era: American and Delta have decided to make passengers wear face masks, adding momentum to what’s catching on as a new standard for the industry as it fights to win back customers during a pandemic. The larger carriers are following JetBlue, which announced April 27 that travelers would have to cover their nose and mouth throughout trips starting May 4. Small children are exempt, Mary Schlangenstein reports.

U.S. Spies See No Human Role in Virus: U.S. intelligence agencies don’t believe SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was created by humans or modified in China, a controversial finding that comes as the president increasingly tries to pin blame on Beijing for the outbreak. The U.S. intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the Covid-19 virus was not man made or genetically modified,” according to a statement from the DNI office yesterday.

The statement adds that the intelligence community “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence” to learn if the outbreak began through contact with infected animals, “or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” referring to the Chinese city where the virus was reported first. Read more from Chris Strohm and Billy House.

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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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