Jan 29, 2020

Axios Vitals

Good morning. Do you need a reason to not watch the Super Bowl? Here ya go.

Today's word count is 661, or a 2-minute read.

1 big thing: Why we panic about the coronavirus, but not the flu

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If you're freaking out about coronavirus but you didn’t get a flu shot, you’ve got it backwards, Axios' Bob Herman reports.

The big picture: A novel outbreak will always command more attention than a common illness, and the coronavirus is a serious health threat.

  • But our newfound hyper-vigilance about infections might be more helpful if we could redirect some of it toward influenza — a significantly deadlier virus that strikes every year.

By the numbers: This new strain of coronavirus has killed 106 people so far, all of them in China. Almost 4,700 total cases have been reported worldwide, although experts believe that total is underestimated.

  • By comparison, this year's flu season has killed 8,200 people, with at least 15 million cases — and that's just in the U.S.

Between the lines: James Lawler, an infectious disease physician at the University of Nebraska, said pandemic viruses like the coronavirus cause more anxiety because, unlike the flu, there are not any initial countermeasures like vaccines, antivirals, diagnostic testing and monitoring systems.

  • Those things exist for the flu, yet vaccination rates are low.
  • "The flu is just not as new and headline-grabbing because we see it every year," said Emily Martin, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.

The bottom line: The coronavirus has upended the lives of many Chinese citizens, and it warrants a strong public-health response.

  • But it's important to remember that if you're concerned about viruses, a lot of those deaths every year are preventable.
  • "When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza ... coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison," William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told Kaiser Health News.
2. China to admit international experts for help

China agreed on Tuesday to allow international experts, which is expected to include Americans, to work on the ground with their scientists on the coronavirus, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: While China quickly provided global access to the virus genome, the epidemiology of how the virus works is hard to determine from outside China with little public data.

Details: The World Health Organization announced it will organize the international group "as soon as possible to work with Chinese counterparts on increasing understanding of the outbreak to guide global response efforts."

  • Researchers want to use this opportunity to study whether people can infect each other before showing symptoms, as this might change screening and quarantine practices.

The latest: The risk to Americans right now remains low, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. But officials are taking aggressive actions in preparation.

Go deeper: What's happening with the coronavirus

3. Another bad headline for Purdue

Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

An unnamed company allegedly offered $1 million in kickbacks to electronic health record company Practice Fusion, in exchange for Practice Fusion engineering its software to encourage more prescriptions of that company's opioids, federal prosecutors said this week.

Turns out, that opioid manufacturer was Purdue Pharma, Reuters reports.

  • Practice Fusion will pay $145 million to resolve the criminal and civil investigations, the Department of Justice announced on Monday.
  • Purdue has not been criminally charged in the case or accused of wrongdoing, Reuters reports.

Why it matters, per Bob:

  • Several Practice Fusion executives not only booked the kickbacks as revenue, but also agreed to help peddle more of the company's painkillers during the height of the country's opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people.

The big picture: Purdue is already in a lot of trouble, and this does nothing to help.

4. Insulin looms large on the campaign trail

It's well known that drug prices matter a lot heading into the 2020 election, but Democratic candidates are making an especially big deal about insulin, STAT reports.

Between the lines: In some cases, there is arguably a justification for why a drug is very expensive. Insulin — which is a very old drug — is not one of those cases. That makes it easy political fodder.

What they're saying: "Insulin is one of the clearest examples of drug manufacturer price-gouging, and grassroots groups have done a really phenomenal job explaining the issue and outlining why insulin is a real problem," Maura Calsyn, managing director of health policy at the Center for American Progress, told STAT.

Flashback to earlier this week: Insulin has also caught the Trump administration's attention, and a proposal is in the works to lower seniors' out-of-pocket costs for the drug.

5. Stat du jour

The U.S. deficit will top $1 trillion this year, the Congressional Budget Office said yesterday.

By the numbers: Medicare spending is projected to increase from $835 billion in 2020 to $1.7 trillion in 2030.

  • Total spending on federal health programs is expected to nearly double, increasing from $1.3 trillion in 2020 to $2.5 trillion in 2030.