It was a relatively quiet week on the COVID front—so quiet that President Biden held his first White House press conference last week and wasn’t asked a single question about the pandemic, which continues to be a race between vaccinations and virus variants.
Not that nothing happened this week: it was a rocky week for AstraZeneca, which was hoping to change the narrative over its vaccine, which has stumbled in its rollout in Europe, by reporting positive results from US trials.
After a press release announcing that the vaccine was found to be 79 percent effective against symptomatic COVID, an independent review board called the results into question, pointing out that the report was based on data that had not been fully updated. That earned a swift and unusual rebuke from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), forcing the company to correct its findings—to 76 percent.
A relatively minor difference, but the dust-up served to further undermine confidence in the company’s COVID jab, especially troubling in Europe where hesitancy and distribution have been a vexing problem, and concerns about blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca shot caused several countries to pause inoculations. Given the supply of already-approved vaccines from other manufacturers in the US, it’s not clear that the AstraZeneca shot will play a big role here, but it is critical in other parts of the world, especially as part of the global COVAX initiative targeted at developing countries, since the vaccine can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures.
The company’s set-to with American regulators also highlighted another challenge that’s become common during the COVID pandemic: conducting scientific review by press release, as the global emergency has required the otherwise slow-moving research community to move at lightning pace.
Meanwhile, back at that relatively dull White House press conference, one piece of encouraging news:President Biden doubled his “first 100 days” goal for vaccinations to 200M shots, a goal that seemswholly achievable, given that 2.5M Americans are being vaccinated every day, on average.
More than half of adults in the U.S. (55%) say they’ve already gotten one dose of Covid-19 vaccine or they’re eager to get one as soon as they can, an increase in acceptance from January (47%), a new poll reports. About 1 in 5 people are waiting to see how the vaccine rollout goes, but don’t rule out vaccination. Another 1 in 5 people are more reluctant: 7% would get vaccinated only if required by work, school, or some other activity, and 15% say no to vaccine under any circumstance. The increase in eagerness spans all demographic groups, but Black adults and young adults under age 30 were most likely to say they want to wait and see.
The Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine prevented 100% of hospitalizations and deaths in clinical trials, the company said today.
Why it matters:The single-dose vaccine could speed up the vaccinations of America’s vulnerable populations, as new variants spread.
By the numbers:
Overall: 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe COVID in nearly 44,000 participants in Phase 3 trials across eight countries.
In the U.S.: 72% effective.
In South Africa, home of a more aggressive variant: 57% effective.
What they’re saying:
Former CDC director Tom Frieden on the Axios Re:Cap podcast: “It has a lot of advantages, easier to store, easier to make.”
Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb: “The J&J vaccine turns in a fantastic result. We now have three highly effective vaccines. This vaccine showed sustained (and increasing!) immune protection over time, perhaps from a robust early induction of memory immune cells (CD4 and CD8).”
What’s next:J&J is expected to apply for an emergency use authorization next week, the N.Y. Times reports.
“Federal regulators are also still waiting on data from Johnson & Johnson’s new manufacturing facility in Baltimore that prove it can mass-produce the vaccine. The company is counting on that factory to help reach its contractual pledge to the federal government of 100 million doses by the end of June.”
The indictment describes an inside job involving Beaumont employees who sold stolen sponges, adhesives and instruments used to inspect eyes and ears. The equipment included cystoscopes, a thin tube with a camera that is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder.
“Some of the medical devices stolen and re-sold over the Internet were possibly contaminated devices that were previously used in various surgical and other medical procedures on patients,” according to the indictment.
The three individuals charged in the indictment are:
Paul Purdy, 49, of Bellbrook, Ohio
Valdet Seferovic, 32, of Auburn Hills
Zafar Khan, 40, of Fenton
Purdy and Seferovic not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday while Harold Gurewitz, a lawyer for Khan, declined comment. The three defendants are scheduled to make initial appearances Jan. 21 in federal court.
“These defendants used their employment status to circumvent the safety protocols established by Beaumont Hospital to profit from the theft of medical devices and put the health and safety of the general public at risk in doing so,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement.
The wire fraud and conspiracy charges listed in the 18-count indictment are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
Beaumont officials have cooperated fully with the investigation, health system spokesman Mark Geary wrote in an email to The Detroit News.
“This kind of theft does a disservice to more than just Beaumont — it does a disservice to the community,” Geary wrote. “We have confidence in the legal process and trust a just result will be achieved.”
Purdy and Seferovic were friends who worked at Beaumont and had access to storage areas inside one of the system’s hospitals, prosecutors alleged. The duo gained access to medical supplies and devices, according to the government, and devised a plan to steal the equipment and sell the items throughout the U.S.
Purdy, who worked for Beaumont until resigning in 2017, never told buyers the items were stolen, prosecutors said. After he quit, Purdy recruited Seferovic to continue stealing items from the medical supply, cleaning and disinfecting rooms, according to prosecutors.
“Medical devices that are removed from their rightful place in a hospital or other medical setting put patients’ health at risk by denying them access to needed diagnostic imaging and treatment,” Lynda Burdelik, special agent in charge of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Criminal Investigations field office in Chicago, said in a statement.
Purdy paid Seferovic for stolen items via PayPal and resold the devices on eBay and Amazon, according to the government. On March 28, 2018, the indictment alleges Purdy received a $4,800 wire payment from the sale of two cystoscopes.
That same day, Seferovic received a $2,550 payment via PayPal, according to the government.
In fall 2017, Seferovic also agreed to steal and sell medical devices and supplies to Khan, who owns Wholesale Medical & Surgical Suppliers of America, LLC in Flint, according to the indictment.
Seferovic would transfer stolen supplies to Khan during meetings in metro Detroit, including at a Walmart parking lot, according to the indictment. Khan, in turn, would sell the supplies and devices online at below retail price.
Seferovic’s job duties and status was unclear Thursday.
The investigation and alleged crimes have prompted internal changes at Beaumont.
“…Beaumont has enhanced security protocols and implemented additional checks and balances across the organization to reduce the chances of something like this happening again,” Geary said.
The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.
You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.
Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail”
2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.”
One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.
Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.
Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance.
Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”
This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility.
The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for.In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.”
Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference
There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.
This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.
I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational.
What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.
10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID
As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:
1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future.
2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas.
3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine:One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.
4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care:A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.
5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning:The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.
6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago, “It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways.
7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud:With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.
8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.
9. Make Care More Affordable:This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.
10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival.
When Will We Return to Normal?
Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.
With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.”In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.
Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”
We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them.
They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.
They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.
Research suggests most people who recovered from covid-19 are immune for at least eight months. Yet epidemiologists are largely still urging this population to get the vaccine if it’s their turn in line.
Official guidance says vaccines should be offered regardless of whether people were previously infected.
That’s per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also says the vaccine is safe for people who have had a prior infection. Former CDC director Thomas Frieden said he’d advise most people to get the vaccine, even if they’ve had covid-19.
But Frieden added that he doesn’t think it’s wrong for someone in a low-risk group who’d already had the illness to defer if they thought someone else could use the dose.
The limits on vaccine supply bolster the argument that recovered people should let others go first.
As administration of the vaccine bottlenecks across the country, the pressure is on to get the shots in as many arms as quickly as possible.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that prioritizing people who don’t already have natural immunity could allow health officials to get more impact from limited supplies, especially in areas where many people have already been infected, according to a modeling study that has not been peer reviewed.
The researchers found that you would need to vaccinate 1 in 5 elderly people in New York to bring death rates down by 73 percent. But you can get the same result vaccinating only 1 in 6 people if you prioritize people who don’t already have antibodies to the virus, according to Kate Bubar, a PhD student in applied mathematics and quantitative biology, who co-authored the study.
And although a previous covid-19 infection isn’t a guarantee of immunity, it’s pretty good protection on its own.Researchers have found that eight months after infection, about 90 percent of patients show lingering, stable immunity.
Still, risk can vary from person to person.
“If I were over 70 or otherwise ill, I would certainly take the vaccine even if I’d had [covid-19]. If I were 30 and healthy, I should not be getting it now (unless a health care worker), but if for some reason I did get offered it I would probably decline,” Marc Lipsitch, an infectious-disease specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an email.
Some epidemiologists worry about the logistics of trying to weed out people with natural immunity.
It could complicate the process as health providers are already struggling to get the vaccine distributed quickly. So far around 6.7 million people have been vaccinated, even though 22.1 million doses have been distributed, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, worried that trying to verify someone’s past illness would add bureaucratic hurdles.
“Confirming whether or not someone has had COVID already adds an unnecessary layer of red tape onto vaccine prioritization. Given that the prioritization is designed to get vaccine first to those people who are most likely to get infected and/or get very sick from infection, it makes sense to reduce the barriers to vaccinating this group as much as possible,” Murray said.
Murray also cautioned that we don’t know how long people’s natural immunity lasts and that it could vary from person to person. This uncertainty may be an added reason to encourage people to get the vaccine.
There’s also a risk that telling people who had covid-19 to hold off on getting the vaccine could end up feeding into anti-vaxxer narratives. Some experts are reluctant to discourage anyone from getting the vaccine if they are eligible, especially given that vaccine hesitancy is widespread.
There’s already a problem with people being offered the vaccine but not getting it.
The low participation rate is concerning, especially at long-term care centers.
But not everyone who turns down a vaccine is a hardcore anti-vaxxer, Frieden cautions. He says that there is a “movable middle” of people. They aren’t going to be camping out overnight to get an early vaccine, but they may be convincible if costs and other barriers are low. Frieden says it’scrucial to keep a door open for those people, for instance, seeing whether they might be willing to schedule a shot three weeks from now instead of immediately.
The slow pace of vaccinations has sparked a heated debate over how to stretch supplies.
A vocal group of experts has pushed for officials to consider giving as many people as possible the first dose of the two-shot regimen, even if it means risking a delayed second dose. President-elect Joe Biden has announced his incoming administration will take this approach, sending all doses out the door as quickly as possible instead of holding half back.
“The plan, announced Friday by the Biden transition team, pivots sharply from the Trump administration’s strategy of holding in reserve roughly half the doses to ensure sufficient supply for people to get a required second shot,” our colleagues reported.
But some epidemiologists, including Frieden, argue that distribution is a bigger problem than supply at this point.Although he said he supports releasing most vaccines, he worries that some of the debates about how to stretch supply are “distractions” from the real obstacles of administration, which he blames in part on a lack of a coordinated federal plan for getting shots into arms.
“What Operation Warp Speed has generally done is said, ‘We’re responsible for getting the drugs to the states, and after that, it’s their problem,’ ” Frieden said. “That’s a way to facilitate finger pointing; that’s neither a plan nor a solution.”
It’s cheaper, easier to distribute, and relies on very different tech than its competitors.
AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, India, and Mexico.
Unlike its competitors, AstraZeneca’s vaccine is a modified version of a common cold virus that spreads among chimpanzees.
This is the first vaccine of its kind to be approved for human use, but other companies are developing similar tech to fight COVID-19.
The United Kingdom became the first country to approve AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 30, just weeks after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccine candidates received a green light from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States. The approval is another promising sign in the global immunization rollout—especially because this option, developed by Oxford University and biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, could be key to reaching people in rural and underfunded areas.
Unlike its competitors, the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine can be stored at higher temperatures, costs less per dose, and uses different technology to immunize people. Although the vaccine hasn’t been approved for use in the U.S. yet, it could reach arms stateside in February at the earliest, The New York Times reports. Here’s what we know about the vaccine so far, and how it stacks up against Pfizer’s and Moderna’s.
How does the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine work?
AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses adenovirus-vectored technology. Translation: It’s a harmless, modified version of a common cold virus that usually only spreads among chimpanzees. This altered virus can’t make you sick, but it carries a gene from the novel coronavirus’ spike protein, the portion of the virus that triggers an immune response. This allows the immune system to manufacture antibodies that work against COVID-19, teaching your body how to respond should you become infected.
In other words, AstraZeneca’s vaccine mimics a COVID-19 infection without its life-threatening side effects, per a release from the company. The reason researchers chose a chimpanzee adenovirus is simple: The modified virus needs to be new to the people being vaccinated—otherwise, the body won’t create those all-important antibodies. Anyone could already have antibodies for a cold spread among humans, but far fewer people have been exposed to a cold spread among chimps.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, meanwhile, rely on mRNA technology, which essentially introduces a piece of genetic code that tricks the body into producing COVID-19 antibodies, no virus required. All three vaccines require two shots spaced about a month apart. Although no adenovirus-vectored vaccine has been approved for human use before, companies like Johnson & Johnson, CanSino, and NantKwest are all working on their own versions.
How does the AstraZeneca vaccine compare to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines?
Storage and distribution
AstraZeneca’s vaccine is the easiest to transport so far—it can be stored for up to six months between 36 and 46°F, normal refrigerator temperatures. The Moderna and Pfizer options, meanwhile, must be stored at subzero temperatures until they’re ready to be used, at -4°F and -94°F, respectively. (mRNA technology is relatively fragile compared to adenovirus-vectored tech, meaning it must be kept at much lower temperatures to remain effective and stable.)
AstraZeneca’s higher storage temperature could make distribution much easier. “A clinic, a nursing home, or even [regional] health departments may not have freezers that can hold things at -94°F,” says Kawsar Talaat, M.D., an infectious disease doctor, vaccine researcher, and assistant professor in the department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University. Being able to use a typical fridge “allows time for distribution, allows the vaccine time to get to more rural areas, [and allows vaccines] to be kept at a clinic for a longer period of time.”
The new vaccine also beats its competitors on price: AstraZeneca’s vaccine costs providers about $4 per dose, while Pfizer’s costs $20 and Moderna’s costs $33,Al Jazeera reports. These prices will most likely fluctuate as time goes on and the vaccines evolve.
The two mRNA vaccines have a slight edge in efficacy; both Pfizer and Moderna report being about 95% effective against COVID-19 after the second shot in clinical trials, while AstraZeneca has reported an average efficacy of 70%, and up to 90% if the dosing is adjusted. (For comparison, the annual flu shot is usually between 40 and 60% effective, per the CDC.)
All three vaccines’ side effects are similar, including potential injection site pain and flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle pain, which are to be expected as your immune system is primed.
Which COVID-19 vaccine is the best?
There’s no “best” vaccine option, as there’s not enough research to confirm that yet. Vaccines aren’t a silver bullet, especially as the pandemic rages on: They must be combined with masks, hand-washing, and social distancing to work as effectively as possible, per the CDC. No matter which COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you first, you can feel confident in its ability to protect you, as long as you continue being cautious until positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are significantly reduced nationwide.
In the meantime, it’s likely “that all the manufacturers are working on making their vaccines more stable at easier-to-manage temperatures,” Dr. Talaat explains. As their formulations change, their pros and cons will, too.
For now, we can be thankful that AstraZeneca’s vaccine is nearing worldwide clearance. “The next generation of vaccines, like AstraZeneca’s, which is kept at refrigerator temperatures, is a major advancement,” Dr. Talaat says. “When you’re talking about distribution to the entire world, it’s much easier to do because we already keep vaccines cold. It’s a lot harder to keep things frozen.”
North Dakota has administered the highest percentage of COVID-19 vaccines it has received, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration data tracker.
The CDC’s data tracker compiles data from healthcare facilities and public health authorities. It updates daily to report the total number of COVID-19 vaccines that have been distributed to each state and the total number each state has administered.
As of 9 a.m. ET Jan. 7, a total of 21,419,800 vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and 5,919,418 have been administered, or 27.64 percent. That means about 1.8 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated.
Below are the states ranked by the percentage of COVID-19 vaccines they’ve administered of those that have been distributed to them.
North Dakota Doses distributed to state: 43,950 Doses administered: 27,289 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 62.09
West Virginia Doses distributed to state: 126,275 Doses administered: 74,016 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 58.61
South Dakota Doses distributed to state: 59,900 Doses administered: 33,389 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 55.74
New Hampshire Doses distributed to state: 77,075 Doses administered: 37,369 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 48.48
Connecticut Doses distributed to state: 219,125 Doses administered: 100,889 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 46.04
Nebraska Doses distributed to state: 132,800 Doses administered: 53,548 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 40.32
Montana Doses distributed to state: 69,025 Doses administered: 27,693 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 40.12
Tennessee Doses distributed to state: 454,800 Doses administered: 179,811 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 39.54
Iowa Doses distributed to state: 191,675 Doses administered: 74,224 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.72
Kentucky Doses distributed to state: 244,350 Doses administered: 94,443 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.65
Vermont Doses distributed to state: 48,550 Doses administered: 18,740 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.6
Maine Doses distributed to state: 96,475 Doses administered: 37,128 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.48
Rhode Island Doses distributed to state: 72,175 Doses administered: 27,696 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 38.37
New Mexico Doses distributed to state: 133,125 Doses administered: 48,306 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 36.29
Colorado Doses distributed to state: 361,375 Doses administered: 130,445 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 36.1
Utah Doses distributed to state: 191,075 Doses administered: 62,662 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 34.8
Oklahoma Doses distributed to state: 264,000 Doses administered: 85,978 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 32.57
Texas Doses distributed to state: 1,676,925 Doses administered: 545,658 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 32.54
New York Doses distributed to state: 1,134,800 Doses administered: 353,788 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 31.18
Massachusetts Doses distributed to state: 449,025 Doses administered: 137,858 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.7
Ohio Doses distributed to state: 576,250 Doses administered: 175,681 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.49
Indiana Doses distributed to state: 409,625 Doses administered: 123,835 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 30.23
Florida Doses distributed to state: 1,355,775 Doses administered: 402,802 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 29.71
Illinois Doses distributed to state: 737,125 Doses administered: 213,045 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 28.9
Missouri Doses distributed to state: 401,050 Doses administered: 113,369 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 28.27
New Jersey Doses distributed to state: 572,250 Doses administered: 155,458 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 27.17
Maryland Doses distributed to state: 371,425 Doses administered: 100,049 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 26.94
Delaware Doses distributed to state: 64,375 Doses administered: 16,677 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.91
Hawaii Doses distributed to state: 95,200 Doses administered: 24,558 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.80
South Carolina Doses distributed to state: 225,850 Doses administered: 58,044 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.7
Minnesota Doses distributed to state: 378,425 Doses administered: 97,098 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.66
Pennsylvania Doses distributed to state: 789,250 Doses administered: 202,498 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.66
Wisconsin Doses distributed to state: 322,775 Doses administered: 82,170 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25.46
Alaska Doses distributed to state: 87,325 Doses administered: 21,830 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 25
Virginia Doses distributed to state: 556,625 Doses administered: 136,924 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 24.60
Oregon Doses distributed to state: 262,100 Doses administered: 61,672 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.53
Washington Doses distributed to state: 518,550 Doses administered: 121,354 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.40
Wyoming Doses distributed to state: 40,400 Doses administered: 9,324 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 23.08
California Doses distributed to state: 2,314,350 Doses administered: 528,173 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 22.82
Idaho Doses distributed to state: 104,925 Doses administered: 22,822 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.75
Louisiana Doses distributed to state: 298,825 Doses administered: 64,664 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.64
North Carolina Doses distributed to state: 647,450 Doses administered: 139,474 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.54
Nevada Doses distributed to state: 187,375 Doses administered: 39,761 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 21.22
Michigan Doses distributed to state: 662,450 Doses administered: 137,887 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 20.81
Alabama Doses distributed to state: 245,100 Doses administered: 48,888 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.95
Arizona Doses distributed to state: 453,275 Doses administered: 88,266 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.47
Arkansas Doses distributed to state: 212,700 Doses administered: 40,899 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.23
Kansas Doses distributed to state: 191,225 Doses administered: 36,538 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 19.11
Mississippi Doses distributed to state: 159,625 Doses administered: 28,356 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 17.76
Georgia Doses distributed to state: 619,250 Doses administered: 103,793 Percentage of distributed vaccines that have been administered: 16.76
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. plans to release nearly all available coronavirus vaccine doses “to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” the Biden transition team said Friday, a move that represents a sharp break from the Trump administration’s practice of holding back some of the vaccine.
The announcement coincided with a letter from eight Democratic governors — including Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, both of whom have clashed with President Trump — imploring the current administration to release all available doses to the states as soon as possible.
“The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable,” the governors wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times and sent Friday to the secretary of health, Alex M. Azar II, and Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who is in charge of vaccine distribution. “We demand that the federal government begin distributing these reserved doses to states immediately,” the letter said.
Because both of the vaccines with emergency approval require two doses, the Trump administration has been holding back roughly half of its supply to ensure those already vaccinated receive the booster dose. The vaccine rollout has been troubled from the start.
As of Thursday, the Trump administration had shipped more than 21 million vaccine doses, and millions more were already in the federal government’s hands. Yet only 5.9 million people had received a dose. State and local public health officials, already overwhelmed with rising infections, have been struggling to administer the vaccine to hospital workers and at-risk older Americans while most people remain in the dark about when they might be protected. Mr. Biden has promised that 100 million doses of the vaccine would be administered by his first 100th day in office.
Releasing the vast majority of the vaccine doses raises the risk that second doses would not be administered on time. Officials from the Food and Drug Administration — experts whose advice Mr. Biden has pledged to follow — have spoken out strongly against changing the dosing schedule, calling such a move “premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence.”
A transition official, speaking anonymously to provide insight into the president-elect’s thinking, said would use the Defense Production Act, if needed, to ensure that enough doses are available.
However, the official also noted that the Biden team has “faith in our manufacturers that they can produce enough vaccines to ensure people can get their second dose in a timely manner, while also getting more people their first dose.”
A spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine initiative, released a statement sharply criticizing Mr. Biden’s approach.
“If President-elect Biden is calling for the distribution of vaccines knowing that there would not be a second dose available, that decision is without science or data and is contrary to the FDA’s approved label,” said the spokesman, Michael Pratt. “If President-elect Biden is suggesting that the maximum number of doses should be made available, consistent with ensuring that a second dose of vaccine will be there when the patient shows up, then that is already happening.”
A spokesman for the transition team, T.J. Ducklo, said Mr. Biden “believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible.”
“He supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now,” Mr. Ducklo said. “He will share additional details next week on how his Administration will begin releasing available doses when he assumes office on January 20th.”
Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health expert at the George Washington University School of Public Health, said she was surprised and concerned about the new strategy, which seemed to offer a solution incongruous with the biggest problems in the vaccine rollout. Distribution has sputtered in large part because of a lack of administering capacity and several logistical hurdles, rather than a severe shortage of doses.
“This is not the problem we’re trying to solve right now,” Dr. Wen said.
For such a plan to work, Dr. Wen added, the Biden administration will need to be confident in both improved distribution tactics and sufficient vaccine production, “so all who receive the first dose of the vaccine will receive the second in a timely manner.”
Should a high number of delayed second doses occur — ostensibly shirking the regimens laid out in clinical trials — “it runs the risk of substantially eroding public trust in vaccines,” Dr. Wen said. The recommended timeframe for administering the second dose for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 21 days later, and for the Moderna vaccine, 28 days.
Mr. Biden’s announcement came amid growing pressure to step up the slow pace of mass vaccinations.
Speaking at a news briefing on Friday, Dr. Stephen Hahn, the F.D.A. commissioner, urged states that have utilized only a small part of their supply to begin vaccinating lower-priority groups, while still observing government guidelines.
“We think that will go a long way toward using these vaccines appropriately and getting them into the arms of individuals,” he said.
Mr. Biden also formally announced nearly two dozen members of his National Security Council staff on Friday, including a senior official for global health threats whose office was downgraded before the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the 21 appointees is Elizabeth Cameron, who will be the council’s senior director for global health security and biodefense, the job she held until John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s then-national security adviser, eliminated the office in May 2018, reassigning its responsibilities elsewhere within the N.S.C. Ms. Cameron has argued publicly that the move “contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response” to the pandemic, and Mr. Biden vowed as a candidate to restore the office.
Lown Institute berates greedy pricing, ethical lapses, wallet biopsies, and avoidable shortages.
Greedy corporations, uncaring hospitals, individual miscreants, and a task force led by Jared Kushner were dinged Tuesday in the Lown Institute‘s annual Shkreli awards, a list of the top 10 worst offenders for 2020.
Named after Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who unapologetically raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by a factor of 56 in 2015 (now serving a federal prison term for unrelated crimes), the list of shame calls out what Vikas Saini, the institute’s CEO, called “pandemic profiteers.” (Lown bills itself as “a nonpartisan think tank advocating bold ideas for a just and caring system for health.”)
Topping the listwas the federal government itself and Jared Kushner, President’s Trump’s son-in-law, who led a personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force. The effort, called Project Airbridge, was to “airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the U.S. quickly,” which it did.
“But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states,” Saini said. Though these supplies were supposed to go to designated pandemic hotspots, “no officials from the 10 hardest hit counties” said they received PPE from Project Airbridge. In fact, federal agencies outbid states or seized supplies that states had purchased, “making it much harder and more expensive” for states to get supplies, he said.
Number twoon the institute’s list: vaccine maker Moderna, which received nearly $1 billion in federal funds to develop its mRNA COVID-19 preventive. It set a price of between $32 and $37 per dose, more than the U.S. agreed to pay for other COVID vaccines. “Although the U.S. has placed an order for $1.5 billion worth of doses at a discount, a price of $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the U.S. government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee.
Webcast panelist Don Berwick, MD, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, noted that a lot of work went into producing the vaccine at an impressive pace, “and if there’s not an immune breakout, we’re going to be very grateful that this happened.” But, he added, “I mean, how much money is enough? Maybe there needs to be some real sense of discipline and public spirit here that goes way beyond what any of these companies are doing.”
In third place: four California hospital systems that refused to take COVID-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds.A Wall Street Journal investigation found that these refusals or delays were based on the patients’ ability to pay; many were on Medicaid or were uninsured.
“In the midst of such a pandemic, to continue that sort of behavior is mind boggling,” said Saini. “This is more than the proverbial wallet biopsy.”
The remaining seven offenders:
4. Poor nursing homes decisions, especially one by Soldiers’ Home for Veterans in western Massachusetts, that worsened an already terrible situation. At Soldiers’ Home, management decided to combine the COVID-19 unit with a dementia unit because they were low on staff, said Brownlee. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly, killing 76 residents and staff as of November. Roughly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in long-term care facilities.
5. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson,which refused to share intellectual property on COVID-19, instead deciding to “compete for their profits instead,” Saini said. The envisioned technology access pool would have made participants’ discoveries openly available “to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.”
Saini added that he was was most struck by such an attitude of “historical blindness or tone deafness” at a time when the pandemic is roiling every single country.
Berwick asked rhetorically, “What would it be like if we were a world in which a company like Pfizer or Moderna, or the next company that develops a really great breakthrough, says on behalf of the well-being of the human race, we will make this intellectual property available to anyone who wants it?”
6. Elizabeth Nabel, MD, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, because she defended high drug prices as a necessity for innovation in an op-ed, without disclosing that she sat on Moderna’s board. In that capacity, she received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019. The value of those options quadrupled on the news of Moderna’s successful vaccine. She sold $8.5 million worth of stock last year, after its value nearly quadrupled. She resigned from Moderna’s board in July and, it was announced Tuesday, is leaving her CEO position to join a biotech company founded by her husband.
7. Hospitals that punished clinicians for “scaring the public,” suspending or firing them, because they “insisted on wearing N95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital,” said Saini. Hospitals also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on COVID-19 safety issues, such as the lack of PPE and long test turnaround times.
Webcast panelist Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who exposed the city’s water contamination, said that healthcare workers “have really been abandoned in this administration” and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has pretty much fallen asleep at the wheel.” She added that workers in many industries such as meatpacking and poultry processing “have suffered tremendously from not having the protections or regulations in place to protect [them].”
8. Connecticut internist Steven Murphy, MD, who ran COVID-19 testing sites for several towns, but conducted allegedly unnecessary add-ons such as screening for 20 other respiratory pathogens. He also charged insurers $480 to provide results over the phone, leading to total bills of up to $2,000 per person.
“As far as I know, having an MD is not a license to steal, and this guy seemed to think that it was,” said Brownlee.
“Colloidal silver has no known health benefits and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a biological extract from the oleander plant and known for its toxicity and ingesting it can be deadly,” said Saini.
Others named by the Lown Institute include Jennings Ryan Staley, MD — now under indictment — who ran the “Skinny Beach Med Spa” in San Diego which sold so-called COVID treatment packs containing hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra, all for $4,000.
Berwick commented that such schemes indicate a crisis of confidence in science, adding that without facts and science to guide care, “patients get hurt, costs rise without any benefit, and confusion reigns, and COVID has made that worse right now.”
Brownlee mentioned the “huge play” that hydroxychloroquine received and the FDA’s recent record as examples of why confidence in science has eroded.
10. Two private equity-owned companies that provide physician staffing for hospitals, Team Health and Envision, that cut doctors’ pay during the first COVID-19 wave while simultaneously spending millions on political ads to protect surprise billing practices. And the same companies also received millions in COVID relief funds under the CARES Act.
Berwick said surprise billing by itself should receive a deputy Shkreli award, “as out-of-pocket costs to patients have risen dramatically and even worse during the COVID pandemic… and Congress has failed to act. It’s time to fix this one.”