HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: U.S. Agencies Brace for Flu-Covid Season

U.S. public health agencies are readying for a flu season that will be complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which they don’t expect to be mitigated by a vaccine anytime soon.

Coronavirus activity is expected to “continue for some time” and it “could place a tremendous burden” on an already stretched health-care system if coupled with the influenza season that hits every fall, top officials such as Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will tell the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to prepared testimony for an oversight hearing on the administration’s response to the pandemic.

The testimony from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Fauci and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn contrasts with rhetoric from President Donald Trump, who has pushed to move on from the virus despite nearly 120,000 American deaths and large increases in cases in some states as they reopen.

The trio will tell Congress that the duration of the pandemic is unknown and that a vaccine that can be distributed widely is not imminent, despite Trump’s push for one by the year’s end. “The rigorous clinical testing required to establish vaccine safety and efficacy means that it might take some time for a licensed SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to be available to the general public,” according to prepared testimony by Fauci’s agency.

The NIAID said the country’s Covid-19 response is, for now, focused on “proven public health practices of containment and mitigation.” Part of the mitigation is anticipating the burdens of handling coronavirus and influenza simultaneously.

The CDC developed a test that can check for both viruses at the same time and has requested that the FDA give it an emergency authorization this month, the officials said. “This will save public health laboratories both time and resources, including testing materials that are in short supply,” they said. Read more from Anna Edney

Happening on the Hill

Price Controls on Covid-19 Drugs Sought: Four prominent House Democrats and one Republican unveiled a pair of bills designed to keep the price of Covid-19 drugs from skyrocketing, signaling that the group is still pushing to tack on a pharmaceutical pricing provision into the next coronavirus-response legislation, Alex Ruoff reports.

The bills together would keep drugmakers from obtaining exclusive licenses for new drugs that treat or prevent Covid-19, require the government to mandate “reasonable, affordable pricing” for those medicines, and limit price increases for existing medicines—such as Gilead’s remdesivir—that could be used on Covid-19 patients. The bills also would establish a federal database of biomedical investment information for Covid-19.

  • Find the licensing measure here and the transparency measure here.

Democrats Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), and Peter DeFazio (Ore.), as well as Republican Francis Rooney (Fla.), are co-sponsoring the measures. “We have good reason to be skeptical about the role of the pharmaceutical industry,” Schakowsky said. “Well before this pandemic, we saw price gouging that cost lives.”

The same group has sought to get these kinds of pricing provisions into one of the past five packages that have cleared Congress this year in response to the spread of the coronavirus across the U.S. An aide to Schakowsky said they hope having a Republican show his support and by gathering co-sponsors for the bills that the group can have a stronger negotiating position for the next bill, which is expected to come some time after the July 4 holiday.

Democrats Target ACA as 2020 Issue: Democrats, seeking to draw a contrast with Trump‘s health agenda before the November elections, hope to vote this week on a package of measures to strengthen Obamacare. House leaders are timing the vote to coincide with an important deadline for a lawsuit, which the White House backs, that challenges the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Groups aligned with Democrats will hold events this week with lawmakers in battleground states highlighting the legislation and condemning the lawsuit. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Emily Wilkins.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Want Nutrition Flexibilities: A federal nutrition program that helps feed hungry women and children needs continued flexibilities as the coronavirus pandemic persists, a bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the Trump administration yesterday, Megan Boyanton reports.

Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) led 16 other legislators in requesting that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue extend the existing pandemic waivers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children through Sept. 30. Read the letter here.

Today’s Hearings:

Research, Testing & Treatment

Pence Warns of Young People Being Infected: Vice President Mike Pence told governors yesterday that federal government health experts were worried that more young people are testing positive for the coronavirus around the country. Pence’s comments echoed concerns voiced by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who signaled he may halt or reverse the state’s economic reopening if the Covid-19 virus continues to expand at what he called an “unacceptable rate.” Read more from Joe Carroll and Jennifer Kay.

Trump Says Virus Tests Make U.S. ‘Look Bad’: Trump said coronavirus testing makes the U.S. “look bad” but that they’re the right thing to do, and that he was mostly joking on Saturday in saying at his Oklahoma rally that he had asked his administration to slow down the diagnostics. The remark, he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, was “semi-tongue in cheek.” Read more from Justin Sink, Josh Wingrove and Jordan Fabian.

  • House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), responding to the president’s Saturday remarks, asked Pence, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield if the White House has attempted to stymie virus testing efforts, Laura Davison reports.

Gilead CEO Targets Inhaled Remdesivir Study: Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day said the drugmaker is screening healthy volunteers this week for Phase I trials of an inhaled formulation of remdesivir. The treatment would be administered via a nebulizer, which is potentially easier to use outside of the hospital. Remdesivir has already been cleared by the FDA for emergency use with Covid-19 patients. The next wave of clinical development will study its use for earlier in the disease. Read more.

Black Covid-19 Medicare Patients Likelier to Be Hospitalized: Black Medicare beneficiaries are hospitalized with the coronavirus at almost four times the rate of Whites, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data show. The new data show that more than 325,000 Medicare beneficiaries were infected with the new coronavirus between Jan. 1 and May 16, and 110,000 were hospitalized.

  • Among racial/ethnic groups, Black Medicare beneficiaries had the highest hospitalization rate: 465 per 100,000, CMS data show. They were followed by Hispanics, at 258 hospitalizations per 100,000. Asian beneficiaries were hospitalized at a rate of 187 per 100,000, and Whites had a rate of 123 per 100,000. Read more from Tony Pugh.

DOD Teams With Finance Agency on Virus Supplies: The Pentagon is working with the U.S.’s international finance agency on issuing loans from a $100 million pool to increase domestic production of medical supplies currently made largely overseas, from syringes to protective gear, in response to Covid-19. The Defense Department announced a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. yesterday to administer loans using authority under the Defense Production Act and funds under the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136). Tony Capaccio has more.

Most Furloughed Workers Have Coverage: More people are uninsured as a result of Covid-19, but many furloughed workers are still holding onto employer coverage for now, according to a report. Findings from a study released today by the Commonwealth Fund found that of the 2,271 adults surveyed from May 13 through June 2, 21% said they or a partner had lost a job or were furloughed due to the pandemic. But 53% still had health coverage through the job. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Covid-19 Accelerates in Latin America, WHO Says: The number of new cases reached a record 183,000 in the most recent World Health Organization report, as the disease spreads in several large countries simultaneously, WHO officials said at a press briefing in Geneva. Latin America is particularly impacted, as the number of reported cases has increased 25% in Brazil over the last week, while Chile is up 41% and Argentina 38%, according to the WHO. Read more.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know

ERs See Fewer Heart Attacks, Strokes: Visits to emergency rooms by people suffering heart attacks or strokes have fallen amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC said yesterday. CDC findings suggest it’s due to people avoiding hospitals to prevent Covid-19 infection. Between March 15 and May 23, visits related to heart attacks declined 23%, while visits related to stroke fell 20% and visits for high blood sugar decreased 10%. Read more from Aysha Diallo.

HHS Fights Class Treatment in Abortion Row: Consumers opposed to a new Trump administration rule that requires insurers offering coverage for abortion to separately bill them for that coverage shouldn’t be certified as a class, HHS told a federal court in Maryland. The consumers asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland to treat the lawsuit as a class action if it is inclined to grant them summary judgment but not to vacate the rule across the U.S. Mary Anne Pazanowski has more.

  • In Tennessee, women’s health-care providers said that a new state provision that bans abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected and up through 24 weeks of pregnancy should be blocked from taking effect as soon as it’s signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee (R). Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

LGBT Groups Sue HHS Over Rule Rollback: The Trump administration can’t let health-care providers discriminate against LGBT people following last week’s Supreme Court decision, advocacy groups including the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights and the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists argued in a lawsuit filed yesterday. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

More Headlines:

To contact the reporter on this story: 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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