HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: House Panel to Scrutinize Virus Response

Alleged missteps made by federal health officials in their response to the coronavirus outbreak—from dismissing early concerns about the contagion to pushing resources toward unproven treatments—will be on display today as a top federal health official makes his first public appearance since being removed from his post.

Rick Bright, who served as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority until the end of last month, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to lay out his concerns that Health and Human Services Department leaders were “dismissive” of his “dire predictions” earlier this year about the possible spread of the coronavirus, according to his written testimony.

Bright will also claim he was removed from his position at BARDA for resisting efforts to promote “an unproven drug” in hydroxycholoroquine as a potential cure for the virus. Bright filed a complaint earlier this month with HHS’s Office of Special Counsel over his removal.

Federal health officials appearing before Congress have been clashing with the administration’s messaging this week, with the heads of several key agencies warning that many states are not ready to reopen, but Bright is expected to be the first to showcase what he and others have characterized as fundamental problems plaguing the administration’s response.

“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright is expected to warn lawmakers. “If we fail to develop a national coordinated response, based in science, I fear the pandemic will get far worse and be prolonged, causing unprecedented illness and fatalities.” He says in his testimony that the U.S. faces its “darkest winter in modern history” if it doesn’t stop the coming second wave.

Aides to committee Democrats say that they expect to probe Bright about these missteps and how they might be corrected.

The ranking member on the health subcommittee, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), has said lawmakers should wait for HHS to investigate Bright’s complaint before bringing him before the panel.

A spokesperson for the HHS, Caitlin Oakley, said the issue is a “personnel matter that is currently under review” and that HHS “strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint from Dr. Bright.”

Congressional Virus Efforts

Democrats Punt on Drug-Pricing Revamp: House Democratic leaders omitted drug pricing changes from their $3 trillion stimulus bill, signaling that pandemic-related legislation won’t address a main policy priority of their caucus. Some top Democrats and consumer advocacy groups have sought to include in every one of the five coronavirus bills introduced in the House this year “anti-profiteering” language aimed at denying pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to create Covid-19 vaccines or treatments and measures to prohibit high prices for them. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

  • Republicans largely rejected House Democrats’ $3 trillion stimulus measure, but the draft plan has the seeds for an eventual, smaller compromise. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushing her chamber to a vote tomorrow on the legislation, a Senate Republican aide said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn’t plan to move on any GOP alternative until June at the earliest. Read more from Erik Wasson, Steven T. Dennis, and Laura Litvan.

Brady Rejects Reopening ACA Enrollment: The top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee flatly rejected proposals to reopen Obamacare’s enrollment period or new insurance premium subsidies. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) told reporters yesterday the “first priority is to get them back to their jobs,” when asked about the millions of Americans expected to lose their insurance coverage as they lost employment in recent months. He pointed out that anyone who loses their employer-sponsored insurance is already eligible to get a plan on Obamacare’s individual insurance marketplace.

Congress has already approved billions of dollars to cover health services for the uninsured, Brady added. His remarks echo those from the administration, which has declined to open a special enrollment period. House Democrats’ $3 trillion stimulus proposal would create a special enrollment period and make other changes to extend insurance coverage to the uninsured.

Feuding Clouds First Virus Panel Hearing: Republicans accused Democrats yesterday of using a new House subcommittee created to monitor coronavirus relief spending as a platform to attack Trump, immediately seizing on remarks from the opening witness at the panel’s first hearing. The complaints from the panel’s top Republican, Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) made for a rocky start for the subcommittee, as its members met through teleconferencing to tune into professionals on how to reopen the country. Read more from Billy House.

GOP Wants Virus Panel to Probe China: HouseRepublicans also want a new congressional panel to investigate “actions and inactions” of the World Health Organization, China and the House itself in the early stages of the pandemic. The demands are included in a list of rules that Republicans want the panel to adopt as safeguards against “partisan political ends.”

House Republicans last week created a China Task Force to probe the origins of the coronavirus and how the WHO handled reports of the initial outbreak. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), top Republican of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who’s leading the task force, said in an interview that it will not be a “partisan exercise” but rather a look into Chinese influence through a “Covid-19 lens.” Read more from Billy House.

Schumer Move to Release CDC Guidance Blocked: Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) yesterday blocked an effort by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to pass a resolution supporting the release of CDC guidance on reopening that the Trump administration has blocked. Braun said the CDC guidance is “overly prescriptive” and regulators at the agency will bog down the economy. He said Democrats are trying to keep the economy closed. Schumer said Trump can’t be trusted to tell the truth about the virus, Catherine Dodge reports.

Letters & Legislation:

The Path to Reopening

Trump Splits With Fauci Over Reopening: Trump yesterday accused Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, of wanting to “play all sides of the equation” with congressional testimony Tuesday that warned reopening the country too quickly could lead to coronavirus case flare ups. “I was surprised by his answer, actually,” Trump said. “Because you know, it’s just—to me it’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schools.”

Fauci on Tuesday said that there wouldn’t likely be a vaccine or widely effective treatment for coronavirus before the fall term began for students, and said that the country needs to “be careful we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of the virus. But Trump said virus data paint a “pretty amazing” picture suggesting younger Americans are largely untouched by the disease. Read more from Justin Sink and Mario Parker.

Trump to Tap Ex-Glaxo Official for Vaccine Force: Trump plans to tap Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines division, and Gustave Perna, a four-star U.S. general, to spearhead a Manhattan Project-style effort to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, two people familiar with the matter said. Slaoui and Perna will oversee the initiative known as Operation Warp Speed, according to the people. Slaoui will work on a volunteer basis. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Drew Armstrong.

U.S. to Get Sanofi Covid Vaccine First: Americans will likely get Sanofi’s Covid-19 vaccine before the rest of the world if the French pharmaceutical giant can successfully deliver one. That’s because the U.S. was first in line to fund Sanofi’s vaccine research, CEO Paul Hudson said in an interview with Bloomberg News. He warned that Europe risks falling behind unless it steps up its efforts to seek protection against the pandemic. Sanofi is one of the biggest players among the dozens of companies seeking a vaccine. Read more from James Paton, Riley Griffin and Cynthia Koons.

Abbott’s Test Found Missing Many Cases: Abbott Laboratories’ Covid-19 test used at the White House to get rapid answers to whether someone is infected may miss as many as half of positive cases, according to a study from New York University. The analysis, which has yet to be confirmed, found Abbott’s ID NOW missed at least one-third of positive cases detected by a rival test and much as 48% when using the currently recommended dry nasal swabs, according to the report on BioRxiv, a server where early studies are posted before peer reviews. Read more from Michelle Fay Cortez, Robert Langreth, and Kristen V. Brown.

U.S. Warns of Chinese Hackers Targeting Research: Hackers working for the Chinese government are trying to steal valuable research on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments from American pharmaceutical and research organizations, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned. “China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to Covid-19,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DHS’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency wrote in a statement, Alyza Sebenius and Chris Strohm report.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

N.Y. Probes Illness in Kids: New York state is investigating 102 reported cases of an inflammatory disease in young children that’s thought to be related to the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said yesterday, after a 5 year-old boy in New York City, a 7 year-old boy in Westchester County, and an 18 year-old girl in Suffolk County died.

The disease causes inflammation of the blood vessels and can affect the heart, he said. Of the cases being investigated, the children showed symptoms of an inflammatory disease like the Kawasaki disease or toxic shock-like syndrome, he said. At the request of the CDC, New York state is helping to develop the criteria for identifying and responding to the illness; 14 other states and five European countries have reported cases.

About 60% of the children displaying the symptoms tested positive for Covid-19 and 40% tested positive for antibodies. Of those, 71% have resulted in intensive care unit admissions, 19% in intubations, and 43% remain hospitalized, Cuomo said. The state reported its first rise in new cases in five days after ramping up testing to 33,794 people from 20,463 the day before.

States Fret Over Pandemic Medicaid Relief: Health-care providers that serve the poorest populations are eager to get a piece of the Covid-19 relief fund, but state leaders and advocacy groups are worried it won’t be enough. Providers of Medicaid so far have seen very little of the $175 billion that lawmakers set aside for hospitals and providers in the CARES Act. The Trump administration signaled funding is on the way in a request for data that has sent states scrambling. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

EPA Sends FEMA Some Protective Equipment: The EPA is shifting nearly 9,500 pieces of protective equipment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help it respond to the coronavirus. The Environmental Protection Agency’s air and radiation office uses protective gear for laboratory work and to respond to emergencies. “EPA is transferring the excess equipment while still maintaining its emergency response readiness,” the EPA said in a press release. Read more from Sylvia Carignan.

HHS Awards $15 Million for Telehealth Training: HHS awarded $15 million to 159 health workforce programs at schools like Yale University and the University Of Tennessee promoting telehealth amid social distancing measures, the agency said yesterday. The funding from the HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration will train physicians, nurses, and students in telehealth. Doctors have turned to telehealth during the pandemic in order to keep sick patients from infecting each other in waiting rooms. Read more from Ayanna Alexander.

More Headlines:

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