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Editor’s take – Health care and life sciences: The COVID-19 vaccine race, guidance and data reporting confusion, and a flurry of executive orders

The reading habits of SmartBrief's health care and life sciences audiences provide a unique window into the priorities and interests of professionals across these industries, and our newsletter engagement data also sheds light on what's keeping our readers up at night. We serve health care insurers, providers and IT professionals, as well as audiences in pharma and medtech. Here's what was top of mind for all of them in Q3, as well as a look at what's next.

COVID-19 vaccine hopefuls gain momentum, but concerns arise

The race to produce a vaccine against the novel coronavirus ramped up in Q3, with several candidates advancing to late-stage trials and a couple potentially moving into pole position for regulatory approval. The CDC directed states to submit distribution plans for a vaccine by mid-October, and road maps for which groups will be vaccinated first began to take shape.

Possible timetables for vaccinations varied. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said vaccinations could start as early as next month or December, while others, including the lead adviser for President Donald Trump’s public-private task force charged with bringing a vaccine to market, weren’t as optimistic.

This uncertainty, along with the compressed production timeline and concerns over politicization, fueled worry about the safety and efficacy of a potential vaccine. Federal health officials, including FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and  Peter Marks, who directs the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, worked to assuage concerns. Major drugmakers in the US and Europe also issued a joint statement saying that safety is a top priority in vaccine development.

What’s next: Science and politics will continue to be entangled as the country enters the final weeks of election season. Late last week, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla voiced his frustration over the politicization of the vaccine process. A vaccination timeframe should become clearer as candidates work their way through Phase III trials. Logistical issues around distribution could cause headaches and hamper coordination, though, and public health officials could have to work hard to persuade Americans to get vaccinated.

COVID-19 data reporting, guidance get caught up in politics

Confusion and conflict over COVID-19 guidance and data reporting seemed to abound. In July, the Trump administration mandated that hospitals send all data on COVID-19 patients to HHS instead of the CDC. The move prompted concerns about data access, transparency and politicization, while the administration countered that it took the action to smooth the data collection process and better coordinate with its coronavirus task force.

The CDC in August issued guidance saying asymptomatic people didn’t need to be tested for COVID-19 – reportedly sidestepping the agency’s review process and going against scientists’ recommendations. Nearly two-thirds of states roundly rejected the guidance, as evidence points to asymptomatic patients being as contagious as symptomatic ones, and the CDC reversed its stance in September. The CDC caused further confusion in late September after accidentally posting – and then deleting -- a draft of updated guidelines on its website that stated COVID-19 can spread via airborne transmission. The mistake drew a rebuke from a former CDC official.

What’s next: Concerns are mounting about rising skepticism of science -- arguably due to mixed messaging and political interference. Consistent messaging and rebuilding trust could be critical going forward, as experts are predicting a fall spike in COVID-19 cases to coincide with flu season.

Executive orders focus on drug prices, health care costs

Trump in August signed several executive orders targeting high prescription drug prices. The orders would drive down the cost of insulin and EpiPens, seek to allow drug importation from Canada, aim to reduce the role of pharmacy benefit managers and link the prices Medicare pays for drugs to the prices paid by governments in other nations. Another order would mandate the government purchase essential drugs and medical supplies from American companies. The president signed additional orders in September that took aim at preexisting conditions, surprise medical billing and health care price transparency. Trump’s “most favored nation” order on drug prices was met with resistance from the pharmaceutical industry. The Biotech Innovation Organization and PhRMA cited concerns over drug access for vulnerable populations.

What’s next: It remains unclear what impact the orders will have, and they will take awhile to implement. Drug prices and health care are likely to remain hot topics in the run-up to Election Day.

More top news

Check out a snapshot of more top health care and life sciences stories from Q3 below.

Doug Harris is custom content editor for health care and life sciences content at SmartBrief. He edits health IT, medical imaging and provider-focused newsletters and oversees development of content marketing pieces for SmartBrief’s health care and life sciences clients.

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