HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: GOP Worries China Will Steal Vaccine IP

Senate Republicans are calling on top Biden administration officials to walk back support of an international plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine IP protections, calling the decision a “giveaway” to China and India that will only promote “vaccine nationalism.”

Countries like China that regularly steal U.S. intellectual property began urging the World Trade Organization to waive IP rights “almost immediately after these vaccines were proven to work,” Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in a letter today to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

“These nations are falsely claiming that granting such a waiver would speed the development of new vaccine capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth,” they said in the letter, obtained by Bloomberg Law.

The letter comes amid a heightening debate over whether the U.S.’s backing of a waiver would help expedite global vaccine manufacturing and distribution.

“It is not surprising that China, India, and South Africa want to steal our intellectual property and medical technology,” the senators wrote. “What is surprising is that an American president, especially one who claims to be a ‘jobs’ president, would force American companies to give their medical technology and manufacturing processes to foreign adversaries like China.”

A proposal before the WTO—set out by South Africa and India last year and supported by dozens of other countries—would waive obligations on the protection of IP rights for the duration of the pandemic. Read more from Ian Lopez.

Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

House Orphan Drug Designations Bill on Tap: House lawmakers plan to vote on a measure (H.R. 1629) under terms set by the Rules Committee that would stop drug corporations from getting market exclusivity for certain medications used to treat rare diseases if they are profitable. Such “orphan drugs” can qualify for seven years of exclusivity if they treat medical conditions affecting under 200,000 people in the U.S., or if there is no reasonable expectation production costs could be recouped via sales. Read BGOV’s Bill Summary by Danielle Parnass.

AbbVie Said Targeted U.S. for Higher Drug Prices: AbbVie targeted the U.S. for higher drug prices as it was forced to cut costs in the rest of the world, according to a new report unveiled by the House Oversight and Reform Committee yesterday. Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said AbbVie employed anticompetitive maneuvers, such as patent settlements, to delay biosimilar competition for its best-selling drug, Humira. That blockbuster status came at the expense of U.S. taxpayers, while prices declined abroad, the committee report said.

The hearing is part of a Democratic effort to bring drug pricing legislation back into the public eye. The Biden administration has indicated openness to a controversial measure that would let Medicare negotiate some prices with drugmakers, but it faces an uphill fight in the Senate where Republicans control half the seats. Three House Democrats sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission yesterday seeking a formal investigation of AbbVie’s drug pricing actions. Read more from John Tozzi.

Stage Set for Senate Paid Leave Debate: The looming debate over a national paid leave mandate began to take shape yesterday in a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee hearing where Republicans raised concerns about paying for it while Democrats predicted it would boost the economy and women’s workforce participation. Congress is set to consider creating that federally run paid family and medical leave program, as a part of the broader jobs, infrastructure, and family-support proposals pitched by Biden. Republicans yesterday questioned the wisdom of tax increases to pay for the program and the potential impact on small businesses. Read more from Chris Marr.

Several Republicans Go Maskless on Floor: Several Republicans yesterday defied the rules for lawmakers on the House floor by going maskless during a vote, the latest pushback from conservatives on Democratic leadership’s Covid-19 protocols. Republicans have bristled over how Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has continued to require members to use masks on the floor during votes even after the CDC released guidance saying that vaccinated people can visit many public spaces without being masked, Alex Ruoff and Emily Wilkins report.

“Now the scientists at the CDC are telling us if you are fully vaccinated, you can go about your life without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), who went maskless yesterday. “So, that’s what I’m doing.” Mast was joined maskless on the floor by Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), among others.

House Majority Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the rules were in place to protect any members who aren’t vaccinated. “There are lots of members who have not yet been vaccinated,” Hoyer said. Seven maskless Republicans were issued a warning for their fist offense, and three were fined $500 for their second offense, according to a Capitol official. Additional offense fines are $2,500 each.

  • House Republican leaders yesterday also sent a letter to Pelosi asking her to end proxy voting and remote committee proceedings, claiming that at least 75% of members of Congress have been vaccinated and all congressional staffers have access to the shot. Read their letter here.

Scott Questions Biden Administration on Mask Guidance: The Biden administration should clarify how the new guidance on masks apply in the workplace, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement yesterday. Scott said the government’s embrace of an “honor system” for mask wearing and inaction on an emergency temporary standard from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have failed workers, Andrew Kreighbaum reports.

“Nurses and essential food and retail workers are expressing serious concerns that the CDC’s new guidance on masks, coupled with the Biden Administration’s failure to issue an enforceable workplace safety standard, is once again forcing workers to rely on an honor system that has been a tragic failure,” Scott said. “That approach has cost people their lives.”

  • Nurses Union Wants CDC to Reverse Mask Easing: The nation’s largest nurse’s union wants the CDC to reverse course on easing its mask guidance and recommend that even fully vaccinated Americans keep their masks in public. The National Nurses United, a union of registered nurses with 170,000 members, cited a report showcasing the need to continue masking in settings like offices and grocery stores. The group warned of new variants and the danger to the unvaccinated, Alex Ruoff reports. Read their analysis here.
  • Related: Health-Care Strikes Yield Mixed Returns for Covid-Weary Workers

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Rural Counties Lag Cities on Vaccines, CDC Says: Covid-19 vaccination coverage in the U.S. was generally lower in rural counties than in urban ones, according to a report published by the CDC yesterday. Adult vaccine coverage was 38.9% overall in rural counties and 45.7% in urban counties. Shot coverage among age groups and among men and women in rural regions also lagged behind urban counterparts. Read more.

Virus-Linked Syndrome May Be Undercounted in Kids: Over the course of the pandemic, Texas Children’s Hospital has cared for over 150 young patients with a rare and sometimes deadly inflammatory condition linked to Covid-19. The Houston institution is one of a dozen children’s hospitals in the state. Yet for all of Texas, the CDC has tracked under 100 cases of children with the condition, called “multisystem inflammatory syndrome.” Read more from Anna Edney and Riley Griffin.

J&J Liability Shield Stays Strong Amid Rare Clots: Health providers administering Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 shot still have robust protection from liability for adverse effects after the national halt, even if they don’t offer updated fact sheets detailing the risk of rare blood clots. It’s a high bar to skirt the immunity shields provided under a public readiness law from 2005, which protects vaccine manufacturers, administrators and other entities from lawsuits unless there’s willful misconduct, attorneys say. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

More Headlines:

Global Vaccine Pace, Outbreaks:

What Else to Know Today

Is There Middle Ground on Abortion Ruling? All eyes will be on Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh next term when the U.S. Supreme Court considers an abortion dispute that could limit or even overturn a half-century of precedent dating back to the landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade. At issue is the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, which the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said implicated the “central holding of Roe” and therefore couldn’t stand.

Advocates on the left see the case as an existential threat to a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, while those on the right say it would only make a “minor tweak” to the court’s precedents. But one thing they can agree on: the fate of Mississippi’s ban likely rests with conservatives Roberts and Kavanaugh. Read more from Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson.

Fight for Mental Health Gets $3 Billion Boost: The Biden administration is providing states with $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to help people struggling with mental health and substance abuse problems during the pandemic. The funds, which will be distributed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration under HHS, is to the largest aggregate funding amount ever targeted for the agency’s substance use block grants. Read more from Tony Pugh.

HHS Must Redo Medicare Pay for Physician Training: Hundreds of hospitals throughout the nation will get a boost in their Medicare reimbursements for training medical residents as the government unlawfully changed how those payments are calculated, a federal court said. The HHS secretary acted arbitrarily and capriciously when he adopted a regulation that effectively changed the weighting factors statutorily assigned to residents, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said. 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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