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New legislative session = new attacks on public health measures


State legislators around the country have spent the first weeks of the 2022 legislative session introducing a slew of bills cracking down on measures used to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, I detail in a new story for STAT.

Some of the bills are predictable, more than two years into this deeply politicized pandemic – many crack down on vaccine verification systems and mask mandates, for example. But certain bills still left me surprised. Wyoming’s vaccine verification bill, for example, would threaten jail time for anyone asking about a person’s vaccine status if that information was going to be used to limit their access to public services.

There’s also a striking number of bills being introduced that would bar hospitals and nursing homes from restricting visits from friends and family, even during a public health outbreak. Some of the bills are good-faith responses to the heartbreak families faced after not being able to see loved ones in nursing homes and hospitals during the worst parts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they could have a major impact on whether hospitals and nursing homes — some of the most high-risk settings during an infectious disease outbreak — can contain the spread of viruses inside their walls.


Check out my full story here.

Is the Senate gearing up to actually pass drug pricing legislation?

A bill from Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) that would cap insulin copays at $35 per month appears to be on the fast track toward becoming law. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) proclaimed on the Senate floor Thursday that the bill would be a “priority for Democrats in the weeks ahead” — a rare shoutout for a bill that has not even been cleared out of committee.

It’s no surprise Democrats are prioritizing the bill: It could provide some immediate relief to patients struggling with high drug costs ahead of a contentious midterm election. The feds, frankly, are also woefully behind the states on this issue: at least 18 states have already passed similar legislation, according to the advocacy organization T1International.

But not everyone is convinced that it’s a good idea to pass Warnock’s bill now, as Democrats’ larger drug pricing package is stalled. Drug pricing advocates raised both strategic and policy concerns with passing Warnock’s bill in conversations with STAT last week.

“We think it’s a mistake if Sen. Schumer makes that bill a priority,” said David Mitchell, the founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs. “We feel strongly that the Senate should remain focused on passing [the larger drug pricing package], and we don’t want to take our eye off the ball and do something that is far less when something much better is in fact within reach.”

Shaina Kasper, a policy manager at T1International, also told STAT that Warnock’s bill “is letting the pharmaceutical industry get away with their greed.” She criticized the bill for not actually cutting the cost of insulin and said the bill would just require patients to make up for high insulin costs through higher insurance costs. Mitchell raised a similar concern.

The debate underscores that Democrats’ efforts to demonstrate they haven’t given up on lowering drug prices — even on seeming no-brainers like lowering insulin costs for patients — could backfire.

Okay, who is behind this campaign? Fess up.

The FDA is being flooded with emails urging it to authorize Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine, two agency officials confirmed to STAT. In fact, the FDA is receiving enough emails that they’re now being moved to their own inbox, one official confirmed.

The campaign is strange, since Novavax just finished submitting its application to the agency late last month and there’s already plenty of effective Covid-19 vaccines to go around here in the United States.

But it’s the latest evidence of the cult-like following the vaccine has drummed up: there’s a whole mini subculture dedicated to ‘stanning’ Novavax.

Novavax said in a statement that it is “not involved in any letter-writing campaigns related to the regulatory status of our COVID-19 vaccine.”

Know who’s behind the Novavax pressure campaign? You know where to find me.

Biden administration says Covid-19 funds have run dry

The Biden administration has been cagey for weeks about exactly how much money it has left to respond to Covid-19. When HHS made a pitch this week for $30 billion, the agency also offered a rare glimpse showing accounts are drained, according to a document obtained by my colleague Rachel Cohrs.

The document, dated Feb. 15, shows that HHS is saying there’s no flexible, unallocated funds left in programs Congress set up for Covid-19 testing, vaccines and therapeutics purchasing, the Strategic National Stockpile, the Provider Relief Fund, or additional funding for the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Production Act.

What it isn’t, though, is an accounting of how Covid-19 relief funds were spent, something Republican senators have asked for before they will consider offering more funding. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — one of the unusual Republicans who’s friendly to pandemic-related spending — said he’d consider additional funding for Covid-19 “as soon as they give me a granular breakdown of where the money’s gone.”

The document makes vague references to potential transfers — particularly one in September 2021 to fund vaccine and therapeutics purchases. HHS and congressional committees that should have been notified of that move did not respond to questions about the transfer. It also categorizes $17 billion that was actually spent on vaccines and therapeutics as part of the Provider Relief Fund.

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