HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Senate Panel to Scrutinize Vaccine Status

President Donald Trump’s repeated claim that a coronavirus vaccine could be approved by November will loom over a hearing today about the safety of vaccines with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the HELP Committee, scheduled the hearing to focus on the role of vaccines in preventing outbreaks to highlight how the Trump administration has accelerated the pace of development of a coronavirus vaccine as well as to get an update on preparations for the upcoming flu season.

“The purpose of this hearing is to explore the remarkable progression science is making toward a COVID-19 vaccine, to remind parents to have their children get their childhood vaccinations, and encourage as many Americans as possible to get the flu vaccine this fall,” Alexander will say, according to excerpts of his prepared remarks shared with Bloomberg Government.

Still, Democrats, led on the panel by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), are expected to push NIH Director Francis Collins and Surgeon General Jerome Adams on how the federal government is ensuring that only a safe and effective vaccine will earn approval for widespread use. Murray will also raise concerns about the diversity among Covid-19 clinical trial participants and the lack of a national vaccines plan, according to a HELP minority staff aide.

“When it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine, we can’t allow President Trump to repeat his alarming pattern of putting politics ahead of science and public health,” Murray will say, according to prepared remarks shared with Bloomberg Government.

Adams and Collins are expected to make the case that the White House’s push to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine doesn’t involve political interference. Collins in particular is well-regarded as a non-partisan and hasn’t been a public face for the White House during the coronavirus pandemic.

Seasonal influenza sends hundreds of thousands of Americans to hospitals each year, public health officials have warned. Some are concerned a bad flu season may collide with the Covid-19 pandemic, sickening millions with similar symptoms and straining hospital resources, Alex Ruoff reports.

Happening on the Hill

McConnell Eyes Vote on Scaled-Back Aid Plan: Senate Republicans proposed giving states access to a $31 billion fund to create their own stockpiles of health supplies and medical countermeasures, part of a scaled-back coronavirus-relief package party leaders want to vote on tomorrow.

The measure released by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would give the federal government and states $31 billion for the development of a vaccine and to strengthen the federal stockpile of medical supplies, as well as allow states to build their own. Several governors have complained publicly about not getting enough supplies from the federal stockpile when their states saw Covid-19 cases spike.

The measure would also appropriate $16 billion for contact tracing and disease surveillance in states as well as extend liability protections to hospital workers, Alex Ruoff reports.

GOP senators are “introducing a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent health-care, education, and economic issues,” McConnell said in a statement yesterday.

The package, carrying some of the aspects of a $1 trillion proposal Republicans put forth a month ago, is expected to cost between $500 billion to $700 billion. It’s a far cry from the $2.2 trillion stimulus that Democrats have demanded, and leaders were quick to dismiss it as insufficient. Erik Wasson, Billy House, and Laura Litvan have more.

Energy & Commerce Markup: The House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to mark up 38 bills, such as:

  • H.R. 3797, which would amend the Controlled Substances Act to make cannabis accessible for use by qualified marijuana researchers for medical purposes;
  • H.R. 2564, which would provide for a special enrollment period under Medicare for people enrolled in COBRA continuation health coverage; and
  • H.R. 2281, which would amend some regulations so practitioners may administer not more than 3 days’ medication to a person at one time when administering narcotic drugs for the purpose of relieving acute withdrawal symptoms. See the full list of measures here.

Virus & Research: The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology holds a hearing on the effect of Covid-19 on university research.

Veterans’ Mental Health Bill: The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee meets to discussS. 785, a bill aimed at improving mental health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Details on White House’s Vaccine Plan Sought: House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), and Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chairman Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) sent a letter to the Health and Human Services Department seeking “written responses and a staff briefing” on the government’s plans to deploy a Covid-19 vaccine. Read the letter here.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Drugmakers Pledge to Avoid Safety Shortcuts: Drugmakers racing to produce Covid-19 vaccines pledged to avoid shortcuts on science as they face pressure to rush a shot to market. In an unusual public letter, the companies agreed to submit the vaccines for clearance only when they’re proven safe and effective in large clinical studies. The CEOs of nine frontrunners in the push for a vaccine signed the pledge: AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, Novavax, Pfizer and Sanofi. Read more from Naomi Kresge.

  • Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said it’s “unlikely” a Covid-19 vaccine will be available to the public by Nov. 3—election day—after Trump said Monday it could be ready by October. “The only way you can see that scenario come true is that there are so many infections at clinical trial sites you get an efficacy answer earlier than you expected,” Fauci said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely.” Read more from Jacquie Lee.
  • Related: Biden Campaign Demands Proof Trump Won’t Politicize Vaccine

Rapid Covid-19 Testing Devices Now at Nursing Homes: The Trump administration has nearly reached its goal of providing rapid antigen Covid-19 testing devices to all of the nation’s 15,400 nursing homes that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid program, with an official stating yesterday that 13,477 testing devices and more than 4.7 million tests have shipped to 13,343 facilities nationwide. Read more from Tony Pugh.

Stockpile Adds $156 Million in Virus Protection Gear: The Strategic National Stockpile will receive an additional $156 million in face masks, shields and other personal protective equipment before the end of October, just when flu season begins to pick up. The list of contracts spotlights the U.S. government’s ongoing efforts to prepare for potential virus surges later this year. The contracts add to the $594 million spent in protective gear in June and July, leading to a combined total of $750 million in stockpile supplies purchased over the last three months. Read more from Shira Stein.

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What Else to Know

Rate of Uninsured Americans Seen Rising: The number of Americans without health insurance coverage rose to 35.7 million people by the second half of last year, reversing years of health coverage gains that were made possible under the Affordable Care Act, according to estimates released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That figure was the highest number of uninsured in the U.S. since 2014, federal data show, and came before the spread of the coronavirus resulted in the loss of millions of jobs, possibly adding to the number of people forgoing coverage. It’s also a 5 million-person increase from early 2019, when 30.7 million people were without insurance coverage.

Obamacare was designed to fill gaps in the nation’s insurance system and lead to historic gains in coverage starting around 2010. But since 2017, the number of people without health insurance has increased amid attempts by the Trump administration to undercut the landmark health law, such as ending the federal penalty for forgoing coverage, Alex Ruoff reports.

Virus Delays Dry Up Generic Drug Lawsuits: Drug patent lawsuits took a 21% dive from this time last year, a “perfect storm” that traces back to 2016 when the FDA only approved a handful of new drugs. That means fewer generic drugs are expected to hit the shelves based upon lawsuits launched in 2020. But the dip is expected to be temporary because the number of novel medicines getting Food and Drug Administration approval rebounded in 2017 and in subsequent years. Read more from Valerie Bauman.

HHS Fights Ruling on Separate Insurance Billing: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will be asking a federal appeals court to decide on the validity of a rule that requires health insurers that pay for elective abortions to send customers separate bills for that coverage, he told a federal court. Azar filed an appeal notice in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Mary Anne Pazanowski has more.

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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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