Axios Vitals

A briefcase with a red cross on the front.
June 03, 2022

Good morning, Vitals readers. Adriel here, filling in for Tina, who’ll be back on Monday. Today's newsletter is 989 words or a 4-minute read.

Situational awareness: Medicare trustees say the program's Part A can pay scheduled benefits until 2028, two years later than previously projected, because of the economic recovery that drove up tax revenues, Axios' Neil Irwin writes.

1 big thing: America still needs more COVID treatments

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America's COVID treatment arsenal is still dangerously understocked and more government funding may be required to bring new drugs to market quickly enough, experts tell Axios' Caitlin Owens.

Between the lines: Having one reliable antiviral and one effective monoclonal antibody is far from ideal heading into the fall, but the federal government says it doesn't have enough money to buy more of the existing therapeutics, let alone invest in new ones.

State of play: Pfizer's oral antiviral, Paxlovid, is highly effective, and its use has significantly increased over the last couple of months. But the way it interacts with other drugs makes it a non-starter for some people, and recent cases of the virus rebounding in patients who took the pills have raised concerns.

  • Although several effective monoclonal antibodies have been developed for treatment over the course of the pandemic, only one from Eli Lilly is effective against the current Omicron variant and being distributed by the federal government.

The catch: Experts warn that having only one good antiviral is precarious, with the virus capable of evolving to resist treatments. It's much safer to have several options or to combine them into a drug cocktail, they say.

  • Congress and the Biden administration have been in a standoff for months over new pandemic funding, and the administration has warned that it doesn't have enough money to buy more of the existing treatments and vaccines for the fall.

The intrigue: The political showdown boils down to whether new treatments will come to market without government incentives, and whether they'll do so in time to keep up with the health threat.

Our thought bubble: We're curious to see if this translates into serious political will to do an Operation Warp Speed 2.0.

Go deeper.

2. Watchdog starts probe of infant formula recall

The HHS inspector general will investigate whether the FDA followed correct policies and procedures in handling the baby formula recall at an Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan, Axios' Ivana Saric writes.

Why it matters: The agency's role inspecting the plant and overseeing the initiation of the recall have come under scrutiny after some in Congress cited a lack of urgency in response to complaints about contaminated formula.

Details: Abbott among the largest suppliers of baby formula in the country — recalled several major brands in February after federal officials investigated cases surrounding four babies who suffered bacterial infections from formula made at the Sturgis plant.

  • In mid-May, Abbott struck a deal with the FDA to reopen the facility and noted that an investigation involving the FDA, Abbott and the CDC found "no conclusive evidence to link Abbott's formulas to these infant illnesses."

President Biden admitted this week he didn't anticipate how the plant shutdown would scramble U.S. formula supplies.

Go deeper.

3. New suicide hotline preparedness lacking

Illustration of a phone with the wire in the shape of a heart.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Fewer than half of the public health officials responsible for deploying the new 988 national suicide prevention and mental health hotline are confident their communities have the necessary staff, financing or equipment, according to a new Rand report.

Catch up quick: Phone service providers are required to route calls or text messages sent to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) by July 16.

  • There have been concerns that an expected increase in outreach will strain crisis center capacity.

Go deeper: 51% of mental health agency directors Rand surveyed reported that they hadn't been involved in the development of a strategic plan for the launch of 988. Only 16% reported that they had helped develop a budget to support 988 operations.

  • About 85% reported that there was a mental health emergency hotline or call center operating in their jurisdiction, although fewer than one-half of those hotlines were reported as part of the Lifeline network that will field 988 calls.
  • That means callers could reach a Lifeline call center that is unfamiliar with local resources, Rand noted.
  • 55% of places with hotlines had staff trained to interact with children and adolescents, but a minority had training to interact with other special populations like the homeless or LGBTQ individuals.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

4. Drug price controls may have little effect on R&D

Illustration of a microscope with shapes and dollar elements.
Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

Modest drug pricing reforms aren't likely to squelch pharmaceutical innovation or jeopardize the future health of Americans, researchers from the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy write in a new post.

Why it matters: Drugmakers have long claimed that controlling the price of their products would result in fewer new cures — a "nuclear winter" argument that could be revived as Congress eyes a slimmed-down Build Back Better package that includes drug cost reforms.

What they found: Big drug companies boosted spending on shareholder payouts and stock buybacks much more than they did on R&D in recent decades, USC-Brookings scholars Richard Frank and Kathleen Hannock write.

  • Much of the R&D is directed at extending the franchises for existing blockbuster medications and doesn't actually involve new drugs.
  • Emerging biopharma companies that spend less than $200 million a year on R&D account for much of the market innovation.

The other side: Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry trade group, points to research that concludes government price-setting chills venture capital funding and investment in late-stage research.

  • "The continued downward pressure on prices in Europe has led to declines in biopharmaceutical industry investments in the [European Union] relative to the United States," the group states.

5. Cat of the week

Gracie. Photo: Jennifer Jones

Meet Gracie, a sweet little tortoiseshell from Columbia, Maryland. (With Tina out of town, it's time for a cat takeover.)

  • "She talks constantly and is convinced you can understand every word she says," writes her human Jennifer Jones. "She also believes she can understand every word you say, although she often thinks it's unimportant."
  • "She is happiest when she is getting petted and loved by her two human mommies," Jones writes. "She runs to greet you at the door if you've been away."