HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Health Business Faces Endless Covid Fight

The health-care industry is grappling with a slow-paced recovery from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as many people continue to avoid doctors’ offices and a new surge in infections spreads across the U.S.

For drugmakers, the pandemic has squeezed demand for everything from childhood vaccines to smoking-cessation drugs and diabetes treatments. When the virus took root in the U.S. this spring, many doctors and patients put off routine and elective care, leading to fewer prescriptions for a range of medicines. Sales also slumped for drugs used to treat cancer or in surgeries.

Pfizer said yesterday that its third-quarter sales were reduced by $500 million, or 4%, due to the effects of the virus. While the company said it wasn’t hit as hard as feared in the early days of the pandemic, the recovery has been slower than it expected.

Meanwhile, Eli Lilly posted earnings and revenue that fell short of forecasts. The company saw U.S. pricing headwinds to its top diabetes products as the pandemic caused millions of Americans who lost health-care coverage from employers to turn to Medicaid, the public health insurance program for those with low incomes. The larger-than-expected Medicaid segment caused the sales brought in from the blockbuster drug Trulicity to cool, Lilly executives said. The company typically reaps more from commercial insurers and Medicare’s prescription drug benefit, known as Part D.

At the same time, Merck was hurt by lower sales of vaccines during the back-to-school season, though the company still beat analysts’ earnings and revenue expectations. Sales of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, one of Merck’s top-selling products, beat analyst forecasts, but were down 10% compared with a year earlier. Read more from Emma Court, Robert Langreth, John Tozzi and Riley Griffin.

More on the Pandemic

Pre-Election Stimulus Hopes Fizzle Out: Trump and his aides yesterday appeared resigned to waiting until after the election to get a coronavirus aid package and put blame on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the delay. “After the election we’ll get the best stimulus package you’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters. Pelosi responded that Trump’s words only have weight “if he can get Mitch McConnell to take his hand off the pause button,” referring to the Senate majority leader’s reluctance to embrace a larger-scale relief bill. Read more from Erik Wasson and Billy House.

Covid-19 Hospitalizations Leap in Most States: Covid-19 hospitalizations have risen at least 10% in the past week in 32 states and Washington, D.C. as a month-old viral surge increasingly weighs on America’s health-care system. Current hospitalizations soared 68% in New Mexico, 50% in Wyoming and 38% in Connecticut, among other notable increases, according to Covid Tracking Project data. The Dakotas and Montana have the most current patients per capita, the data show. Read more from Jonathan Levin.

Trump Says Midwest ‘Heated Up’ With Coronavirus Cases: President Donald Trump on Tuesday night acknowledged that coronavirus cases are rising in “certain areas” of the Midwest, a rare admission during the final week of the presidential campaign. “Certain areas that are heated up right now,” Trump said at a rally in Omaha, Nebraska. “They’ll go down. They’ll go down very quickly. They’ll be down within two weeks, they’re figuring.” Trump has routinely downplayed the virus while making his closing argument to voters, who have rated his pandemic response poorly, according to opinion polls. Throughout his presidency, he has promised results for various initiatives in two weeks. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Josh Wingrove.

Eli Lilly Antibody Therapy Suspended: A paused clinical trial of an Eli Lilly experimental antibody therapy won’t resume after federal researchers concluded the drug likely wouldn’t help hospitalized patients with advanced cases. National Institutes of Health researchers who initially halted the trial due to a safety concern, however, didn’t find that the treatment caused any harm, which may bode well for a regulatory review of the antibody’s usage in a different setting. Read more from Riley Griffin.

Novovax Postpones Late-Stage Trials: Novavax has delayed the start of a late-stage study of a candidate in the U.S. and Mexico by more than a month until late next month. Novavax had originally expected the 30,000-person trial to start enrolling in mid-October. The vaccine study is backed by a $1.6 billion contract from a U.S. program to speed up development of a vaccine. Different ethnicities will be proportionally represented, the company said in a statement. Read more from Cristin Flanagan has more.

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What Else to Know:

California Hospital Workers Vote to Go on Strike: More than 4,000 workers at 11 California hospitals have voted to strike in the coming days, alleging that their employer, Tenet Healthcare, refused to bargain over Covid-19 protections. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West said yesterday that Tenet rejected most of its pandemic-protection requests, including more protective equipment and testing for employees. The vote margin was 96% percent in favor of a strike, the union said.

“We are scared to come to work knowing we are at great risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Gisella Thomas, a respiratory therapist at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, said in a written statement. “We want to work with management at our hospitals to increase protections for our health, our patients’ health, our families’ health, and the health of our communities. We have put forth a pandemic safety proposal that addresses issues workers are concerned about, like staffing, PPE, and increased COVID-19 testing for employees.” Read more from Ian Kullgren.

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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: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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