HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Partisan Split Over Prep for Next Pandemic

Differences over how to prepare for future pandemics threaten lawmakers’ efforts to fix cracks in the U.S. health system that undermined the response to Covid-19.

The first part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would provide $30 billion over four years to create jobs by improving the nation’s security against health threats. The proposal includes beefing up the public stockpile of medical countermeasures and discovering faster ways to develop vaccines, tests and therapies.

More than 550,000 Americans have died from the virus and millions lost jobs amid a health policy response that was limited to piecemeal measures like addressing shortfalls in testing supplies and hospital revenue.

To guard against a future disaster, major policy shifts and long-term spending are needed, say public health and industry leaders, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directors under both parties’ administrations.

“We’re underfunded, understaffed, poorly coordinated and not equipped for modern-day prices,” Tom Frieden, a former CDC leader, told lawmakers in March.

Bipartisan legislation is needed to fund disease surveillance and response, key lawmakers say. Democratic leaders are pushing for billions of dollars to upgrade hospitals and data systems as part of the massive infrastructure package they want to pass in coming weeks.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has sought to work with her counterpart on the panel, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), on pandemic preparedness legislation. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

J&J Takes Over at Emergent Vaccine Plant With Aid From Biden: Johnson & Johnson, with help from the Biden administration, is taking over a Baltimore vaccine production facility that was the site of a major manufacturing error last month — and moving production of material for a second company’s shot to minimize risk of another mistake.

J&J announced Saturday that it was “assuming full responsibility regarding the manufacturing of drug substance” at the Emergent BioSolutions plant. To facilitate that, the Department of Health and Human Services worked with AstraZeneca to move its production out of that plant so it can focus only on J&J, according to an HHS official familiar with the measure, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Eduard Gismatullin and Riley Griffin.

CDC Says Travel Is Low Risk for Vaccinated People: Fully vaccinated people can resume recreational travel in the U.S. at “low risk” yet should still wear a mask and avoid crowds, according to new advice from the CDC. The agency released its long-awaited travel guidance Friday amid the accelerating pace of vaccinations in the U.S., even as more contagious variants threaten to ignite a new wave of Covid-19 cases and as millions of Americans hit the skies anyhow.

The guidance says that fully vaccinated people don’t need a Covid-19 test and don’t need to quarantine when traveling domestically. For international travel, they don’t need a test unless it’s required by their destination country and don’t need to quarantine once back in the U.S., but should be tested before boarding a return flight. However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a press briefing Friday that she still recommends against non-essential travel—even for vaccinated people—but that the agency has a duty to update its guidance as more science becomes available. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Fiona Rutherford.

FDA Revises Moderna Authorization for More Doses: In a long-awaited move to increase vaccine supply, the Food and Drug Administration revised Moderna’s vaccine authorization to allow the company to ship vials filled with up to 15 doses, compared with the existing 10-dose vials. The new multi-dose vials will contain a maximum of 15 vaccine doses, with a range of 13 to 15 doses that can be extracted depending on the type of syringes and needles used, the agency said in a statement late Thursday. The agency also changed labeling for existing Moderna vials to allow for providers to extract as many as 11 doses from the vials, up from 10. Read more from Robert Langreth.

Variant Dominates Areas With Two-Thirds of U.S. Population: The B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus is now predominant across an area containing two-thirds of the U.S. population, with one of Biden’s top Covid-19 advisers saying it spreads more easily and likely leads to more serious Covid-19 symptoms. The variant, initially found in the U.K., is dominant in five of 10 regions into which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention groups the U.S population. The CDC identified those regions Friday, saying they include much of the Eastern seaboard, from New York south to Florida, as well as the Midwest and most of the Sunbelt. About 220 million people, or two-thirds of the U.S. population, live in those five regions. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

Mississippi, Florida Governors Oppose Vaccine Passport: Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves Sunday became the latest Republican governor to oppose so-called “vaccine passports” that would document that an individual has received the Covid-19 vaccines to gain entry into businesses. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order Friday banning businesses from requiring vaccine passports in the state, saying they would “reduce individual freedom and will harm patient privacy.” South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts also spoke out against the use of vaccine passports.

New York is the first state to launch an optional government-sponsored digital vaccine passport called the Excelsior Pass, which will allow residents to verify their vaccinations or negative test results to enter stadiums and entertainment venues. Read more from Bloomberg News.

State AGs Raise Alarm Over Fake Vaccine Cards: A group of 45 bipartisan state attorney general sent a letter on behalf of the National Association of Attorneys General to the CEOs of Twitter, eBay and Shopify asking them to take more actions to prevent the sale of fraudulent CDC vaccination cards on their platforms. They asked the platforms to monitor for ads or links to fake vaccination cards; to remove links selling fake cards; and to save information about the ads and the people selling them.

Vaccine Rollout to Top 100 Countries in Weeks: Coronavirus shots should be rolled out to over 100 countries in the next couple of weeks, from 84 at present, with a shortage of supplies the limiting factor, said one of the leaders of the World Health Organization’s vaccine initiative. “If we had more doses, we could make these available,” Seth Berkley, chief executive officer of Gavi Alliance, a public-private partnership that works to provide vaccines for developing countries, told CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” Read more from Ros Krasny.

More on Covid-19:

What Else to Know

Shortages of Key Drugs for Children Spur New Hospital Coalition: In Washington, just four miles from the U.S. Capitol, a children’s hospital is forced at times to call up nearby medical centers to see if they can spare the therapies needed for its young cancer patients. In Chicago, a drug called epinephrine, which has multiple uses including maintaining blood pressure, can also fall into short supply, sometimes requiring the children’s hospital there to entirely rework its medication delivery protocols every few days.

These occurrences aren’t rare, hospital pharmacists say, and they carry a cost. Treatment in some cases may be delayed, and hospitals can too often find themselves recalibrating doses initially meant for adults, increasing the chance for errors. Now, 11 children’s hospitals are forming a new coalition aimed at blunting the effects of unstable supplies, turning to a company that grew out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Read more from Anna Edney.

More Headlines:

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at zsherwood@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

Top