CDC to address COVID-19 health disparities with $2.25 billion in grants

Beginning in March 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will invest $2.25 billion over the course of two years to remedy health disparities created by the pandemic in underserved and high-risk communities, such as rural, and racial and ethnic minority communities. The CDC says this is its largest investment in communities affected by COVID-19-related health disparities.

The initiative offers public health departments around the country grants for testing and contract tracing. Grant money can also be used for the development of COVID-19 mitigation and prevention resources. Other aspects of the federal funding include data collection and reporting, infrastructure support, and advancing the goal of health equity.

Americans in higher-risk and medically underserved patient populations face higher rates of coronavirus exposure, infection, hospitalization, and death. Patients from these communities tend to have higher rates of chronic disease, which can lead to severe disease from coronavirus infection. These populations also typically face greater barriers to COVID-19 testing, treatment, and vaccination.

Abbott's Pandemic Defense Coalition in place to spot future outbreaks

Although the current COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, Abbott is taking steps to prepare for and catch the next one. In March 2021, the medical device and health care company launched the Pandemic Defense Coalition, a global network of centers with lab testing and genetic sequencing capabilities with the shared goal of tracking emerging viruses and mutations.

The Coalition currently encompasses academic centers and nonprofit organizations in Chicago, Jamaica, Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Senegal, India, and Thailand.

To prevent another pandemic, the program aims to help the global health community through the speedy development of diagnostic tests once new threats, such as viruses or potentially dangerous mutations, are detected.

Because collaboration is key in a global health crisis, Coalition members will publish all findings so that others can discern if a particular virus is a novel strain.

Novavax vaccine tested against coronavirus variants protects from severe COVID-19

Phase 3 data indicate that Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine, NVX-CoV2373, may be 100% effective against severe disease caused by coronavirus variants.

Results varied starkly between different variants. According to studies that took place in the U.K., the vaccine showed 96.4% efficacy against the original coronavirus and 86.3% against B.1.1.7, the variant prevalent in the U.K. Protection against B.1.351, the South African variant, was much lower at only 48.6% efficacy. Detailed safety data for the vaccine has not yet been released.

Although these efficacy numbers may seem lower than desired, Novavax is touting its vaccine's ability to prevent severe disease. Trial data across two studies comparing NVX-CoV2373 with placebo now show 10 cases of severe COVID-19 all occurring in the placebo groups. This suggests the Novavax vaccine can claim full protection against severe disease. The FDA requires only five or more severe COVID-19 cases in the placebo group to sufficiently assess a vaccine's benefit-risk profile.

Further trial data from a U.S.-Mexico phase 3 clinical trial are expected later, which means U.S. approval might come after most U.S. adults have already received vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, or Pfizer-BioNTech.

CMS announces increased Medicare payment for COVID-19 vaccine administration

Effective as of March 15, 2021, the Medicare payment for COVID-19 vaccine administration was increased to support providers and grow the number of vaccines they can afford to administer each day. Due to the new policy announced by the CMS, immunizers such as physicians, hospitals, and pharmacies receive a national average payment of $40 per COVID-19 vaccine. This is an increase from about $28 to $40 for single-dose vaccines and from about $45 to $80 for vaccines that require two doses. The exact rate can vary based on location and the type of entity administering the vaccine.

CMS said it hopes the rate increase will inspire new or expanded vaccination sites as well as patient education efforts and potentially additional staff hires. The additional financial resources are intended to help ensure the vaccine is administered safely and correctly. As vaccine supply in America grows, the increased payment should facilitate the speedy use of that supply.

Amazon Care becomes available nationally for employees and other companies

Amazon Care, the technology company's virtual health service, will be made available to all Amazon U.S. employees by summer 2021 and will also become available to employees of other companies beyond Amazon. The service includes virtual office visits, in-person primary care visits at patients' homes or offices, and prescription delivery.

Less than two years ago, Amazon Care was piloted as a new health benefit for Amazon employees and their families in the Seattle region. The service provides help with health issues such as colds, allergies, minor injuries, vaccines, lab work, sexual health services, and more.

In March, Amazon Care was expanded to other Washington-based companies. By summer 2021, Amazon Care will be made available in all 50 states, for both Amazon employees and other companies.

Amazon has partnered with Intermountain Healthcare, Ascension, and others to form the Moving Health Home coalition, which focuses on influencing policymakers to consider the home as a site of clinical service, affecting reimbursements. Amazon acquired PillPack, an online pharmacy, in 2018.


New gene-editing therapy relieves chronic pain in mice

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are pursuing gene editing as an opioid-alternative therapy for chronic pain management. The team of scientists has spun off its UCSD research into startup Navega Therapeutics.

With two gene-editing tools, CRISPR and zinc fingers, scientists have suppressed NaV1.7, the gene that encodes for a pain-related channel protein in neurons. According to study results published in Science Translational Medicine, lasting pain relief was achieved when the new therapy was injected into the spines of mice. Instead of permanently cutting a subject's DNA, the new pain drug temporarily suppresses NaV1.7. No safety concerns have yet been recorded.

Pain relief in mice lasted from 15 to 44 weeks, depending on the therapy model used. Researchers hope this duration of efficacy can be a potential advantage over some opioids that must be taken daily.

Scientists hope to test the new drug on humans in future years; for now, testing will advance to studies of effectiveness and repeated dosing impact on larger animals, such as monkeys.

Eli Lilly COVID-19 antibody combo therapy reduces hospitalizations and deaths by 87%

New clinical trial data released in March 2021 by Eli Lilly said the company's monoclonal antibody combo therapy for COVID-19, bamlanivimab-etesevimab, reduced the risk of hospitalization and death in participants by 87% compared with placebo. Bamlanivimab-etesevimab had already received FDA authorization in patient populations at high risk of developing severe disease, but Eli Lilly can now present even stronger data supporting its COVID-19 antibody combo.

The new trial tested a dosage of 700 mg of bamlanivimab and 1,400 mg of etesevimab; this dosage is now approved by the FDA for the same population for which the combo was previously approved. This includes patients over age 65, or under 65 who are overweight or have multiple health problems. Together with Amgen, Eli Lilly will manufacture up to 1 million combo therapy doses this year.

Emergency use authorization was originally granted in February 2021 based on trial data showing a 70% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths at doses of 2,800 mg each of bamlanivimab and etesevimab.

Although monoclonal antibodies have been on the market for several months, early data revealed only one in 20 eligible patients were treated with this therapy. That rate had improved to around one in seven by March 2021. Eli Lilly representatives said increased awareness of monoclonal antibody therapeutics is paramount.