June 3, 2020

Covid-19 roundup: Agencies, drugmakers pull back on experimental use of hydroxychloroquine

Daily Briefing

    Gilead Sciences develops an easy-to-use version of remdesivir after the drug shows more promise in treating Covid-19, more insurers eliminate cost-sharing for members in light of Covid-19 epidemic, and more.

    • Cigna on Monday announced that it will eliminate cost-sharing requirements for in-person and telehealth primary, specialty, and behavioral health care visits for individuals enrolled in the company's Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, as well as its individual and family plans. The change applies to all care, not just care related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The policy will remain in place through the end of 2020 for MA enrollees and through the end of federal and state emergencies related to Covid-19 for individual and family plan enrollees. Brian Evanko, president of Cigna's government business, said the insurer is pausing the cost-sharing requirements so people can "focus on getting and staying well" without "having to worry about how they will access or afford the care and services they need" (Minemyer, FierceHealthcare, 6/1). 

    • CVS Health on Friday reached its goal of opening 1,000 testing sites for the new coronavirus throughout the United States. CVS said it has administered 200,000 diagnostic tests for the new coronavirus since it opened its first testing site in March. The company said it plans to conduct up to 1.5 million tests per month beginning in June (Sullivan, The Hill, 5/28).

    • Eli Lilly on Monday announced it has begun studying an experimental Covid-19 drug derived from a blood sample of an early U.S. Covid-19 survivor. The drugmaker said the study will evaluate the drug's potential to treat patients hospitalized with Covid-19. The company said it also plans to test whether the drug could prevent Covid-19 in people who are at risk of the disease (Loftus, Wall Street Journal, 6/1; Banerjee, Reuters, 6/1; Herper, STAT News, 6/1). 

    • Gilead Sciences on Monday announced a study of its experimental Covid-19 treatment remdesivir showed that a five-day course of treatment with the drug in addition to standard care was associated with modest improvement in patients with moderate cases of Covid-19. Of the almost 600 patients evaluated for the study, 76% who received the five-day treatment course along with standard care showed improvement at day 11, compared with 70% of patients who received a 10-day treatment course along with standard care and 66% of patients who received standard care only. Gilead also announced that it is developing versions of remdesivir that are easier to administer to patients and can be used outside of hospitals, including a version of the drug that can be inhaled (Erman/Beasley, Reuters, 6/1; Anderson, Becker's Hospital Review, 6/1; Dearment, MedCity News, 6/1; Herper, STAT News, 6/1; Beasley, Reuters, 6/2). 

    • Google in collaboration with the Cybercrime Support Network has rolled out a program called "Scam Spotter" that's intended to protect users against cyberattacks and phishing scams, which have increased amid the coronavirus epidemic. The program provides users with a three-step process to consider before they provide their personal information via email or phone call, as well as resources to report scams to the Federal Trade Commission. The program also provides users with information about common scams and tests their ability to identify phishing attempts or cyberattacks (Miller, The Hill, 5/28).

    • Google also has developed a new tool called SODAR that uses augmented reality to help users practice social distancing. The tool, which can be launched through Google Chrome on an Android device, superimposes a two-meter radius around the user through the devices' cameras so they can ensure they are standing at least six feet away from people in their vicinity (Vincent, The Verge, 5/29). 

    • HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, who is currently working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lead the Trump administration's Covid-19 testing efforts, on Monday announced he will shift away from those efforts and return to his regular duties at HHS this month. An HHS spokesperson told The Hill that "Giroir will remain engaged with the Covid-19 testing and related efforts," but "many of the day-to-day management and operations of testing are being transitioned to HHS operating divisions under the leadership of the Immediate Office of the Secretary, allowing [Giroir] to return to the key public health responsibilities of the assistant secretary for health including combatting substance misuse, ending HIV, promoting vaccination, and improving the lives of those living with Sickle Cell Disease both in the [United States] and around the world" (Hellmann, The Hill, 6/1; Simmons-Duffin, NPR, 6/1). 

    • Novartis has finalized a deal with AveXis to manufacture Novartis' gene-therapy based Covid-19 vaccine candidate. Human trials on the vaccine candidate are planned for this year, and manufacturing will begin before Monday, according to Massachusetts General Hospital and Massachusetts Eye and Ear, which are participating in the project (Miller, Reuters, 5/28). 

    • Quest Diagnostics on Thursday announced that it has received an emergency use authorization from FDA for the company's self-collection test kit for the new coronavirus. Individuals can use the kits to collect their own biological samples via nasal swabs and ship the samples to a Quest Diagnostics lab, which will test them for the new coronavirus. Quest said it will have more than 500,000 kits available for use by the end of June, and individuals will be able to access the kits through health care providers and the company's QuestDirect platform. Quest also will make the kits available to health care workers through states and organizations conducting programs to help health care personnel, first responders, law enforcement, and other workers on the frontlines of the Covid-19 epidemic return to work (Modern Healthcare, 5/28).

    • The U.S. government on Monday awarded a $628 million contract to Emergent BioSolutions to increase the country's manufacturing capacity for a potential vaccine against the new coronavirus. HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement said the contract will help Emergent and U.S. officials accelerate access to promising "vaccine candidates" (Chander, Reuters, 6/1).

    • The White House and the Brazilian government on Sunday released a joint statement announcing that the United States has supplied Brazil with two million doses of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have touted as a potential Covid-19 treatment. The countries made the announcement just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) suspended trials testing hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19 patients due to safety concerns (Spetalnick, Reuters, 5/31; Coleman, The Hill, 5/31; Perano, Axios, 5/31).

    • Sanofi on Friday also announced that it has temporarily stopped enrolling Covid-19 patients in its two hydroxychloroquine clinical trials. In addition, the company said it will stop supplying hydroxychloroquine to treat patients with Covid-19 unless further research shows the drug is safe to use in patients with the disease. Both WHO's and Sanofi's moves came after a study published last month in The Lancet found that hydroxychloroquine was associated with increased death rates and arrhythmia in some Covid-19 patients. However, researchers are now raising questions about the study's data (Blamont, Reuters, 5/29). 

    • UnitedHealthcare (UHC) is extending its decision to cover Covid-19 treatments without any cost-sharing requirements for all of the health plan's fully insured members through July 24. UHC had previously announced that the policy would last through June 1. Daily Briefing is published by Advisory Board, a division of Optum, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group. UnitedHealth Group separately owns UHC (Lotven, Inside Health Policy, 5/31 [subscription required]).

    • Veterans Affairs (VA) has mostly stopped prescribing hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment, after studies have suggested that the treatment may not be effective against the disease. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department previously treated 1,300 veterans with Covid-19 with the drug. Wilkie said the department now is mostly using remdesivir and convalescent plasma to treat its Covid-19 patients (Sullivan, The Hill, 5/28).

    • WHO and 37 countries last week launched an alliance to increase sharing of scientific data, knowledge, and property, such as vaccines and diagnostic tools, amid the global Covid-19 pandemic. The alliance, called the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, aims to make resources and medicines universally available for smaller nations that could not contribute significant funds to vaccine development efforts (Shields/Miller, Reuters, 5/29).
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