Legislation

Biden’s Covid case shows the pandemic persists

With help from Daniel Payne and Daniel Lippman

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WELCOME TO FRIDAY PULSE, where one of your co-writers (the one who talks a lot about her cats) is looking forward to getting this game. Send news, tips and game recommendations to [email protected] and [email protected].

COVID CAUGHT BIDEN — Joe Biden’s Covid-19 diagnosis, 18 months into his presidency and weeks into yet another case surge with quick-spreading new variants, underscores the sobering reality that the pandemic is far from over.

White House officials said Thursday that the 79-year-old president, fresh off a high-profile trip to meet with Saudi Arabian leaders, is experiencing mild symptoms. The president is twice-boosted and already started a round of the Pfizer-made coronavirus antiviral Paxlovid.

His diagnosis comes amid a broad push for adults to get another booster and not wait around for variant-updated vaccines that could land this fall (though they could get those, too). That’s because there’s at least 130,000 reported coronavirus cases a day now and like four or five times more that go unreported, Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told POLITICO last week.

We’re in a different moment compared to President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis in October 2020. The then-74-year-old Trump didn’t have access to authorized coronavirus vaccines or the quick-acting Paxlovid. He spent three nights in Walter Reed and received monoclonal antibodies and the antiviral remdesivir, both of which have had less success against the virus than newer treatments.

But Biden’s age group is still hardest hit. While the U.S. has slowed to 300 deaths a day, many of those are still the oldest citizens infected with the virus. A new spike in severe cases, driven by the now-dominant BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, has seen people above age 70 hospitalized at nearly three times the rate of people in their 60s.

Vaccines and boosters have helped curb severe cases but drugmakers are scrambling to produce updated, variant-targeting shots. The question is whether vaccines targeting BA.4 and BA.5, slated for this fall, will still be what’s needed.

And Long Covid risks loom. The lingering symptoms affect around a third of people who are infected, with little understanding about what causes the syndrome and how to treat it.

“I would say his risk of hospitalization is exceedingly low,” Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist who’s also editor-at-large for public health at Kaiser Health News, told Daniel. “To me, that’s probably the most significant question, is whether he has Long Covid.”

CBO: ACA SUBSIDIES WILL COST $25B ANNUALLY Permanently extending the enhanced Affordable Care Act plan subsidies would cost the federal government an average of nearly $25 billion per year, according to a calculation released Thursday by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Subsidies are set to expire this year without another congressional extension. Democrats proposed a two-year extension in the reconciliation package moving through the Senate, but many insurance groups are lobbying to make the subsidies permanent.

The numbers: Permanent subsidies would increase the federal deficit by $247.9 billion over a 10-year period, CBO predicted. Roughly 4.8 million new enrollees would join the marketplace each year of that period while 2.2 million “fewer people would be without health insurance, on average, in each year,” compared to current law.

Still, the cost could be a dealbreaker for fragile reconciliation talks, especially West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin’s calls for reducing the deficit.

FDA USER FEE RENEWAL WOULD SAVE $1.4B CBO also projected on Thursday that a bill to reauthorize Food and Drug Administration user fees, S. 4348 (117), would save almost $1.4 billion over a decade.

That’s if the package is passed in its current form. CBO assessed the bill advanced out of the Senate HELP Committee, but ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) last week introduced a stripped-down version that would slash a pack of rider amendments that constitute the majority of savings, David Lim writes.

$140M FOR MONKEYPOX RESEARCH PRIORITIES The White House announced Thursday a $140 million, 22-target research agenda for monkeypox to better understand and handle rising case counts across the country. Daniel reports that the agenda aims to improve data on transmission, testing, vaccines, equitable treatments and environmental factors.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will lead the effort, and people across government agencies will determine the best use of vaccines and other therapeutics. The government also hopes to gather better data about how the virus may be changing and how to best communicate with the public about the outbreak.

The announcement comes after scientists around the world met to plan priorities with the World Health Organization — priorities that the White House said it considered in making the list.

The new funding will go toward clinical, epidemiological and ecological studies, as well as molecular epidemiology, blood sampling and early medical countermeasures.

“Further efforts are needed, however, to fill critical gaps such as vaccine and treatment studies, assessing viral detection in different fluids and parts of the body, evaluating viral viability in various environments, and human transmission studies,” the White House said in a statement.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA BILL SET FOR KEY VOTE — The House and Senate are expected to vote on medical marijuana research legislation next week after an agreement was reached to merge bills with strong bipartisan backing — meaning a marijuana research bill could head to Biden’s desk soon.

The bill would instruct federal agencies to conduct research into the potential benefits and harms of medical marijuana, as well as how to measure impairment and safe driving. It would also specify regulations for approving research licenses and cultivation licenses for research, and would protect doctors who discuss harms and benefits of medical marijuana with their patients, our colleague Natalie Fertig writes.

SENATE SUSPENDS BABY FORMULA TARIFFS The Senate on Thursday voted to suspend tariffs on foreign-made infant formula amid ongoing shortages, sending the bill to Biden amid the ongoing baby formula shortage.

The Formula Act will eliminate tariffs on some imports of finished products of baby formula through December. It will not reduce tariffs on base powders used to make the formula, despite intense lobbying from the formula industry who said that provision would speed up production.

Shortages persist even after White House staged over 30 fly-ins of formula made in foreign countries since May to resupply shelves, Garrett Downs writes. But much of the formula from overseas is subject to hefty import duties, raising the end price for parents.

NY ANNOUNCES POLIO CASE State health officials are urging New Yorkers to get vaccinated against polio after announcing a case in Rockland County, POLITICO’s Shannon Young reports.

According to the CDC, no cases of polio have originated in the U.S. since 1979. It, however, noted that “the virus has been brought into the country by travelers with polio. The last time this happened was in 1993.”

The details: The case announced Thursday involves a revertant polio Sabin type 2 virus, which health officials said is “indicative of a transmission chain from an individual who received the oral polio vaccine.” That vaccine type is no longer used in the U.S., which has administered the inactivated polio vaccine since 2000, suggesting that it may have originated outside the country.

Jane Brown has been named CEO of Aetna Kansas. She most recently was chief compliance officer at insurance company Avesis and is a UnitedHealth Group alum.

The White House is expected to tap Monica Bertagnolli to serve as the National Cancer Institute’s first female director, STAT News first reported. Bertagnolli currently works as a researcher specializing in gastrointestinal cancers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Children with autism in Georgia and Illinois abruptly lost care this month as autism therapy startup Elemy suddenly laid off employees and curbed services, Forbes’ Katie Jennings reports.

Just four drinks a week can change someone’s cognitive function over time, according to a British study covered by MedPage Today’s Judy George.

Pennsylvania Democratic candidate for Senate John Fetterman is inching back towards campaigning after a stroke two months ago left him with lingering speech and hearing problems, POLITICO’s Holly Otterbein and Marianne Levine report.


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