HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Vaccine Push Raises Risk Virus Will Linger

The U.S. strategy to rely on vaccines and treatments, rather than emphasizing social distancing, masks and testing nationwide, threatens to delay the return to normal life for Americans.

While the U.S. has committed more than $10 billion to develop new shots to fight Covid-19, about half of Americans say they are wary of taking them, according to a Gallup poll reported this month. Meanwhile, any shortfalls in the vaccine program could mean the country will struggle with the virus well into 2023, according to the London-based firm Airfinity.

At the same time, cases are climbing as the weather cools and more activity moves indoors.

Other parts of the world are also in trouble. Some European countries are seeing more new infections each day than in the dismal spring outbreak. But those regions are considering re-instituting containment measures that have become anathema in the U.S. Parts of Asia, meanwhile, seem poised to recover faster.

In the waning days before the U.S. election, the Trump administration’s response is focused on a swift roll-out of vaccines developed in its Operation Warp Speed program. On Sunday, Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, outlined the strategy on CNN.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Meadows said. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigations.”

But ending the crisis won’t be quick or easy. Vaccines may initially slow deaths among the vulnerable, such as those with chronic conditions. But the logistical, production and public education challenges of immunizing 60% to 70% of national populations — the level the World Health Organization says is needed to achieve herd immunity — will be a time-consuming process. The world will still need masks, social distancing, widespread testing and effective new therapies to keep the virus at bay, public-health specialists say.

A vaccine isn’t “a magic wand,” said Marie-Paule Kieny, a research director at the French health-science institute Inserm and a former World Health Organization official. “It will not be a quick fix, even if it’s effective.” Read more from Naomi Kresge, James Paton and John Lauerman.

Astra-Oxford Vaccine Stays Near Front of Line Despite U.S. Delay: A seven-week halt to a U.S. trial of the Covid vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford bumped it from pole position in the race for a protective shot, but it’s still in the leading pack. High rates of infection as the pandemic regains strength and the large numbers of participants in other trials around the world should help keep the vaccine program on course, according to scientists.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the trial to resume Friday, nearly two months after a volunteer in a U.K. study became ill, and weeks after other regulators elsewhere had cleared tests to resume. An initial diagnosis of the rare nerve disease transverse myelitis was ruled out and Oxford later said the person’s symptoms included limb weakness and were unlikely to be linked to the shot. Read more from Suzi Ring.

Lame-Duck Session Best Shot for Covid Aid: Timing for another pandemic relief package largely hinges on the outcome of the election, those tracking talks say—a deal would be unlikely if Democrats take control of the Senate or if Joe Biden wins the presidency. Republican aides said there will be little incentive for Senate Republicans to back a deal in that scenario, with many of them already skittish about more deficit spending. Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in an interview yesterday that he agrees.

“The lame duck agenda depends largely on the outcome of the election,” Wyden said. “If my choice wins, Vice President Biden, it’s hard to see Mitch McConnell supporting another penny of stimulus.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke yesterday, but failed to reach agreement. The two sides still disagree over language for a national coronavirus testing and tracing program, Colin Wilhelm reports.

Related: Stimulus Hopes Put On Hold Until After Election as Senate Leaves

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Azar Queried on Covid Health Coverage Denials: Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) led a letter along with 54 lawmakers to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressing concern over recent coverage denials from health plans for Covid-19 testing. The CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) enacted in March sought to ensure Covid-19 test costs to be covered by the U.S. government, but “recent changes have created confusion regarding coverage requirements,” the letter says. Read the letter here.

‘Surge’ Virus Testing Targets Asymptomatic in Latest Push: Missouri, Kentucky, Utah, and South Dakota will be the next states to get “surge” virus testing sites as Covid-19 cases in the U.S. rise and federal officials push for “smart testing” strategies. Officials last week opened up federal testing sites in North Carolina and Wisconsin and are ready to deploy eight more sites once they get states’ approvals, Brett Giroir, an assistant health secretary leading the Trump administration’s testing efforts, told reporters. Though “surge testing” in hot spots isn’t new, this is the biggest force deployed to several states at once. Jacquie Lee and Emma Court have more.

Pharmacies See Record Demand for Flu Shot: While the world awaits a vaccine for Covid-19, Americans are rushing to pharmacies in record numbers for seasonal flu shots. Public health officials say that may help avoid a “twindemic.” CVS Health has already beat the 9 million flu shots it gave during the entire previous season and expects to double that figure by the end of this cycle, a spokesman said yesterday. Walgreens has administered 60% more doses in its U.S. stores than this point last year, a top official said, Angelica LaVito and Emma Court report.

Fauci Pens Article on Masks, Return to Normalcy: Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., continues to push for mask-wearing and avoiding crowds in a JAMA article published. “Return to normalcy will require the widespread acceptance and adoption of mask wearing and other inexpensive and effective interventions as part of the Covid-19 prevention toolbox,” he said. Fauci’s article comes after Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said “we’re not going to control the pandemic.” Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know

Senate Confirms Barrett: The Senate confirmed Amy Coney Barrett on a partisan 52-48 vote, and Justice Clarence Thomas administered the first of two required oaths to Barrett on the South Lawn of the White House a short time later with Trump looking on. Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the second oath in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court today, letting Barrett begin work as a justice and solidifying the court’s 6-3 conservative majority just eight days before the presidential election.

With the clearest anti-abortion record of any high court nominee in decades, Barrett’s appointment is a major victory for Evangelical Christian groups that have loyally supported Republicans and are a crucial voting bloc for Trump. The court is scheduled to hear arguments on the ACA a week after the election. The Trump administration is urging the court to declare the law invalid, including its protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.

The Mississippi attorney general, meanwhile, has pitched the court to take up her state’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks in a case that could sharply limit Roe and for the first time let states outlaw the procedure before a fetus becomes viable.

Trump has said he wants the justices he’s selected for the court — there are now three of them — to invalidate Obamacare and overturn Roe v. Wade. Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

States Get More Time to Report Bad Small-Batch Drugs: States have more time to report complaints about medications made in small batches thanks to an outline of their reporting expectations updated yesterday. States can enter in formal agreements with the Food and Drug Administration to report information about small-batch drug manufacturing going on within their borders. Those agreements are not legally binding, but provide a window into the local pharmaceutical trade and help the FDA spot potentially contaminated medicines. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

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

Dying of Starvation, Venezuelan Prisoners Kill Dog for Survival

Dying of Starvation, Venezuelan Prisoners Kill Dog for Survival

A group of prisoners in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo was forced to kill a Rottweiler for food to fight off starvation, the human rights NGO Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP) revealed on Sunday. The Argentine outlet Infobae reported that family members of the...