HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: CDC Ramps Up Variant from India Research

Federal Health officials are ramping up their surveillance of the highly transmissible Covid-19 variant first identified in India as experts warn that under-vaccinated areas in the U.S. could become hot spots for the mutation.

While U.S. cases attributed to the B.1.617 variant currently sit below 1%, the growth rate remains unclear due to the small sample size. Meanwhile, one science group said the strain could be as much as 50% more transmissible than B.1.1.7, the variant that emerged from the U.K. That mutation was first seen in the U.S. in late December, and is now dominant nationally.

A just-released U.K. study found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was “highly effective” against a form of the B.1.617 variant two weeks after the second dose, affirming preliminary data from Phase 3 clinical trials. Still, the mutation has arrived in the U.S. at a time when anti-pandemic measures are loosening and around 60% of the population isn’t yet fully vaccinated.

The B.1.617 variant that has devastated India was first detected in the U.S. between late February and late March of this year. On May 4, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated B.1.617 as a variant of interest. It is now studying whether to escalate its standing to a variant of concern, said Jade Fulce, a CDC spokesperson. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

Related: Vaccines Seen Effective Against Variant From India, Study Finds

Happening on the Hill

Nominations: At 5:30 p.m. senators will vote on the motion to invoke cloture, or limit debate, on the nomination of Chiquita Brooks-LaSure to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Brooks-LaSure’s nomination for CMS has been widely opposed by Republicans over the Biden administration’s decision to rescind a 10-year extension for Texas’s Medicaid waiver. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said last week that he’s made little headway in negotiations with Health and Human Services Department officials, and he’ll continue opposing her nomination. Brooks-LaSure appears to have enough support for the Senate to confirm her to the job. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) joined Democrats earlier this month in supporting her nomination, Alex Ruoff reports.

HELP Markup: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled tomorrow to mark up six bills including:

  • S. 1491, to improve obstetric care in rural areas;
  • S. 610, to address behavioral health and well-being among health care professionals;
  • S. 1658, to expand access to breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace; and
  • S. 1675, to improve maternal health.

Vaccine Confidence: The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee scheduled a hearing Wednesday on building Covid-19 vaccine confidence.

Fiscal 2022 Appropriations Hearings:

‘BioBond’ Bill Seeks to Relaunch Medical Research: Biomedical companies and universities could jump-start clinical trials disrupted by the coronavirus under a bipartisan House proposal to establish a new federally supported loan program. Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) introduced the bill on Friday that aims to bolster “innovative biomedical research into therapies to address unmet medical needs,” a copy of the bill shows. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Wyden Says FDA Rules Overdue on Hemp CBD: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged support for his bipartisan bill to require the Food and Drug Administration to regulate hemp-derived CBD like other products used in food, beverages and dietary supplements, tweeting on Friday “it’s past time for the FDA to get with the program.” The bill, also backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would waive hemp-derived CBD from the FDA’s prohibition on drugs in food or beverages, according to a statement, Brady Ford reports.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Shots All Highly Protective Against Death, Study Shows: Current Covid-19 shots provide a high level of protection against both hospitalization and mortality, according to a summary of the efficacy of eight vaccines that showed the Pfizer-BioNTech jab might be better at stopping at least two worrisome coronavirus variants. Efficacy against Covid-19-linked disease averaged about 85% after a full course, hitting nearly 100% protection against severe cases and death, University of Florida researchers said in a report. Jason Gale has more.

Biden Says U.S. Could Produce 1 Billion Shots: Biden said Friday that the U.S. could produce up to 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses by as early as year-end. The “hope and expectation” is for the remainder of 2021, the U.S. will “be able to vaccinate every American,” Biden said at a White House event. Meanwhile, states have introduced innovative ways to draw residents to get inoculated. Oregon joined states offering lottery winnings to people who get vaccinated. Four others are also offering prizes. Read more from Mario Parker and Jordan Fabian.

  • Also in the push to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, the White House enlisted popular dating platforms to encourage Americans to show their vaccination status in exchange for a better shot at love. Nine of the largest dating apps in the U.S., such as Bumble, Tinder, and Hinge, have added badges that show a person’s vaccine status and are offering perks for those who’ve gotten their innoculations. Jackie Davalos has more.

Low Virus Spread in Schools With Masks, Airflow: Masking and improved ventilation were linked to a lower rate of Covid-19 cases in schools in a new study that reinforced CDC health guidance on how to keep the country’s children safe. Among elementary schools in Georgia, the frequency of cases at the end of last year was 37% lower in schools that mandated staff, teachers and administrators to use masks, according to a CDC report. Elaine Chen has more.

Some Vaccines Help Faster Than Others: With hundreds of millions now vaccinated against Covid-19, the coronavirus outbreak should begin to die down in places where a large chunk of the population has been inoculated. But that isn’t happening everywhere. Instead, two paths are emerging: In countries like Israel, new cases are declining as vaccinations spread, while in other places like the Seychelles, infections continue to increase or even reach new highs. One reason for that may be the different types of vaccine being used. Read more from Bloomberg.

Canada Starts Laying Out Metrics for Border Opening: Justin Trudeau’s government began to sketch out necessary conditions to ease travel limits at the U.S. border. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc said today that U.S. and Canadian officials are discussing how to move forward with reopening the world’s longest international border, which was closed to non-essential traffic for over a year. Read more from Kait Bolongaro.

China Accuses U.S. of Hyping Theory Coronavirus Escaped From Lab: China accused the U.S. of promoting theories that the coronavirus escaped from a high-security lab in Wuhan, as a fresh report about sick workers at the facility prompted Beijing to reaffirm denials.

“The report that you mentioned about three people getting sick, that is not true,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing Monday in Beijing. Zhao was responding to a Wall Street Journal report that a trio of researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a lab in the central city where the first Covid-19 outbreak was identified — had fallen ill and sought hospital care in November 2019. Read more from Bloomberg News.

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What Else to Know Today

Biden to Omit Health Proposals in Budget: White House officials have left major campaign promises on health care out of Biden’s upcoming budget ask, The Washington Post reported, citing people briefed on the internal matter. The budget won’t include Biden’s campaign vow to enact a public option to create a government-run health insurance program, or his pledge to cut prescription drug costs, the Post reports.

Lower Medicare Age May Entice Millions to Drop Employer Coverage: Democratic proposals to lower the age for Medicare eligibility to 60 could cause nearly 12 million to 15 million people to scrap their job-based health insurance and enroll in the program, according to two reports.

In addition to a potential 11.7 million new Medicare enrollees under the proposal, research from the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that another 2.4 million people, many with coverage through the Obamacare marketplace, could also join if Medicare eligibility drops from 65 to 60. Read more from Tony Pugh.

  • Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced Friday that it will terminate another Medicare payment model at the end of the year. Originally scheduled to end in December 2020, the Next Generation Accountable Care Organization Model had been extended by a year through 2021 because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The model allows participants to assume higher levels of financial risk and rewards for improving health outcomes and lowering costs for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare. Read more from Tony Pugh.

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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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