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July 24, 2020

Covid-19 roundup: HHS strikes 1.95M deal for doses of Pfizer's experimental coronavirus vaccine

Daily Briefing

    Amazon extends its work-from-home policy for corporate employees into 2021, Uber launches system to share coronavirus-related data with public health officials, and more.

    • Amazon has extended its work-from-home policy for corporate employees until Jan. 8, 2021, because of America's ongoing coronavirus epidemic, a company spokesperson told The Hill last week. "We continue to prioritize the health of our employees and follow local government guidance," the spokesperson said, adding that the company also has "invested significant funds and resources to keep those who choose to come to the office safe through physical distancing, deep cleaning, temperature checks, and by providing face coverings and hand sanitizer." Amazon's move comes after Google and Facebook also announced decisions to extend their work-from-home policies, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that both Twitter and Square employees will be allowed to telework indefinitely (Mills Rodrigo, The Hill, 7/15).
    • Anthem has launched a digital tool designed to help public health officials and employers track and predict the coronavirus' impact on national, state, county, and city levels. The tool—developed in partnership with CloudMedx, an artificial intelligence startup—has five tabs with different sets of data related to America's coronavirus epidemic, including coronavirus case counts, the economic effects of the epidemic, hospital preparedness, and testing availability. Tashfeen Suleman, CEO of CloudMedx, said the data is pulled from more than 100 sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics and CDC (Minemyer, FierceHealthcare, 7/16).
    • The anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which has been widely touted by President Trump as a potential treatment for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was no more effective than a placebo at reducing the severity of Covid-19 symptoms among patients with mild cases of the disease, according to results published last week in the Annals of Internal Medicine from the first randomized clinical trial to evaluate the drug as a therapy for mild Covid-19. Researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School conducted the trial, which included 491 adult Covid-19 patients who were treated with hydroxychloroquine or given a placebo within the first four days of them showing symptoms of Covid-19. According to the study, 24% of the participants treated with hydroxychloroquine continued to experience Covid-19 symptoms over a 14-day period, compared with 30% of participants who were given a placebo—a difference that was not statistically significant, the researchers said. The researchers also noted that five patients who took hydroxychloroquine were hospitalized or died because of Covid-19, compared with eight patients who received the placebo (Erman, Reuters, 7/16; McGinley, Washington Post, 7/16).
    • Mount Sinai Health System last month launched a data science center to develop artificial intelligence and other technologies to help providers diagnose and treat Covid-19. The Mount Sinai COVID Informatics Center has a group of 30 to 40 physicians, data scientists, and engineers who use data from the health system's network of hospitals, machine learning, and big data technologies to seek ways to improve Covid-19 diagnoses and treatment, said Zahi Fayad, the center's co-founder and director of Mount Sinai's Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Institute. The group is also using data and technology to help the system's hospitals figure out how to use their bed capacity, ICUs, and other resources more efficiently. Robbie Freeman, VP of clinical innovation at Mount Sinai and an RN, said the health system so far has developed multiple machine-learning algorithms to help providers assess their patients and determine whether they are likely to need a ventilator or are close to recovering from Covid-19 and being discharged from the hospital (Kass, Wall Street Journal Pro, 7/16).
    • Google has announced that, beginning next month, it will ban advertisements promoting coronavirus-related conspiracy theories. The company also said publishers will not be allowed to use Google's ad platform to place ads next to content promoting such theories (Tribbitt, Bloomberg, 7/17; Graham, CNBC, 7/17).
    • FDA on Saturday issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) allowing Quest Diagnostics to pool together samples from up to four patients to test for the coronavirus, marking the first time that FDA has authorized pool testing for the virus. The pool-testing technique involves combining samples from multiple patients to test them for a disease, and then conducting further screening only if results from the batch are positive. FDA issued the EUA as the United States again faces coronavirus testing backlogs and supply shortages. The United States previously used pool testing during the country's HIV crisis, and other countries have used pool testing to address coronavirus outbreaks. However, some public experts say it might be too late for the United States to efficiently use such an approach, because the coronavirus is now widespread throughout the country and a large number of pooled tests likely would come back positive, requiring additional testing (Crespo, CNN, 7/18; Johnson, The Hill, 7/18; Lim, Politico, 7/20; Joseph, STAT News, 6/26).
    • British drugmaker Synairgen on Monday announced that its experimental treatment for Covid-19 reduced the risk of hospitalized Covid-19 patients developing more severe cases of the disease. The company said a small, randomized clinical trial involving 101 participants across nine British hospitals showed patients who took the drugmaker's inhalable formulation of interferon beta had a 79% lower risk of developing more severe Covid-19 symptoms or dying from the disease when compared with participants who received a placebo, and patients treated with the drug were twice as likely as those who received a placebo to recover from Covid-19. However, experts said more data is needed to prove whether the experimental drug is a safe and effective treatment for Covid-19, and they noted that company's findings have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a complete study (Babu/Aripaka, Reuters, 7/20; Thompson, Yahoo, 7/20; Mueller, New York Times, 7/20; Smith, CNBC, 7/20).
    • Henry Ford Health System has teamed up with NuVision Technology to pilot the use of 10 digital health screening kiosks with touchless monitors to assess people for Covid-19 symptoms. The kiosks can check a person's temperature through retina scans and allow people to answer questions about Covid-19 symptoms. If the kiosk detects a patient has Covid-19 symptoms, an attendant provides the patient with directions on how to move forward (Shamus, Detroit Free Press, 7/20; Drees, Becker's Health IT, 7/20).
    • Two potential coronavirus vaccines have been shown to produce strong immune responses in patients enrolled in early clinical trials, according to separate studies published Monday in The Lancet. One study found AstraZeneca's experimental vaccine produced a strong antibody response and T-cells in patients enrolled in Phase I and Phase II clinical trials involving more than 1,000 healthy adults. The other study found CanSino Biologics' experimental vaccine produced an immune response in patients enrolled in a Phase II trial involving 500 patients, but researchers noted that younger participants who received the inoculation had a stronger immune response than older patients, which suggests that older people may need two doses of the vaccine (Walker, MedPage Today, 7/20; Owermohle/Brennan, Politico, 7/20; Harris/Lupkin, "Shots," NPR, 7/20; Kirkpatrick, New York Times, 7/20).
    • NIH in updated treatment guidelines for Gilead's remdesivir, a promising experimental treatment for Covid-19, recommended that providers preserve the drug for patients with severe cases of the disease when supplies are limited. NIH said there's currently not enough information on the drug's effects on patients who have mild cases of Covid-19 (Anderson, Becker's Hospital Review, 7/20).
    • Uber has launched a system to provide public health officials with data on drivers and riders who are believed to have come in contact with people who've tested positive for the coronavirus. The system allows public health officials in all countries where Uber operates to access the data within hours of it being reported by Uber users. The system also allows health departments to view data based on trip receipts or passenger names. Uber for months has been sharing user data to assist with contact tracing (Drees, Becker's Health IT, 7/20).
    • CDC this week updated its guidance on isolation protocols for the coronavirus to recommend that people with Covid-19 symptoms isolate at home for at least 10 days after their symptoms begin, as well as for at least 24 hours after they've last experienced fever. In addition, CDC said a small number of patients experiencing severe cases of Covid-19 and those who are severely immunocompromised may need to isolate for up to 20 days after they begin experiencing symptoms (Weixel, The Hill, 7/21; Cha, Washington Post, 7/21).
    • LabCorp CEO Adam Schechter on Tuesday told CNBC that the demand for coronavirus tests in America is outpacing the company's ability to expand its testing capacity, which is resulting in slow turnaround times for test results. "We need all states to ensure we're doing everything we can to better control the virus. If we can do that, then we'll be able to have the tests that we need," Schechter said. LabCorp currently is processing 165,000 coronavirus tests each day and returning test results within 1.5 days on average for hospitalized patients and three to five days for patients who are not hospitalized, according to Schechter (Stankiewicz, CNBC, 7/21).
    • A widely available steroid called dexamethasone was associated with reduced mortality rates among Covid-19 patients on ventilators and supplemental oxygen, but it did not show the same benefit in patients who were not receiving respiratory support, according to full clinical trial results published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results showed that 2,104 patients who received dexamethasone had lower death rates when compared with the 4,321 patients who received only standard Covid-19 care over a 28-day period (Anderson, Becker's Hospital Review, 7/21).
    • The Advanced Medical Technology Association on Tuesday announced that it has partnered with 13 diagnostics manufacturers to create a U.S. Covid-19 diagnostic supply registry. The registry will collect information from participating manufacturers and publicly available data and provide a weekly update on the numbers of antigen, molecular, and serology coronavirus tests shipped at the national and state levels. The registry is intended to facilitate data sharing and communication between diagnostic companies and federal and state officials (Modern Healthcare, 7/21).
    • HHS and the Department of Defense on Wednesday announced they have reached an agreement to pay Pfizer and BioNTech up to $1.95 billion for 100 doses of Pfizer's experimental coronavirus vaccine if it receives an EUA or approval from FDA by December. Under the agreement, the federal government would be able to obtain up to 500 million more doses of the vaccine if needed, and the vaccine would be made available to Americans at no cost (Cohen, Inside Health Policy, 7/22 [subscription required]; New York Times, 7/22).
    • President Trump on Wednesday announced that his administration will provide nursing homes $5 billion to help them combat the coronavirus. CMS Administrator Seema Verma said the new funding will be doled out under a forthcoming regulation. According to The Hill, there will be no restrictions on how nursing homes can use the funds (Weixel, The Hill, 7/22; Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press, 7/23).

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