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Waiving Patent Protections for Vaccines is a Damaging and Short-Sighted Move

May 06, 2021
3:42 pm

Biopharmaceutical companies are receiving justified praise for the rapid speed with which they produced effective vaccines against COVID-19, offering hope for a return to normalcy from a pandemic that has cost lives and damaged economies.  The success of vaccine production underscores the critical importance of investments in research and development and the value those investments can bring in the future.  Pfizer scientists, for example, are already exploring how the mRNA technology used to create a COVID-19 vaccine can be utilized to develop advanced treatments for cancer, HIV, and other diseases.

Thus, it’s mystifying that there is a push to discourage this kind of investment by shredding the intellectual property protections held by the vaccine makers.

The Biden Administration has done a superb job in COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration, but it has taken a misstep on the intellectual property issue.  Yesterday, the U.S. Trade Representative said that the United States would now support a move in the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections for vaccine products.  India and South Africa had initiated this action, ostensibly to open the door for poorer countries to create their own generic version of vaccines.

Seeking this waiver is a move based on a false premise that vaccines are not making their way around the world.  In fact, vaccine manufacturers have pledged to supply over 12 billion doses by the end of this year and working with the World Health Organization to supply doses to 90 developing countries at a discounted price. Eliminating patent protections will do less for global vaccine production and dissemination than what is already occurring.  Any country seeking to make its own version would have to acquire vaccine components and the knowledge on how to manufacture the products and then generate large-scale manufacturing capabilities.  This would take significant time.

The long-term harm here is to future research and development.  Intellectual property protections are vital to the development of new treatments, cures and vaccines.  Without those protections, there is no incentive to invest in the research cycle that can require years and billions of dollars just to get one new product through the development pipeline.  The WTO move achieves limited short-term gain while risking damage that could leave the world more vulnerable to the next public health crisis.

Merck for Mothers Continues to Advance Maternal Health Equity

April 30, 2021
4:25 am

In a nation where Black women are disproportionately impacted by maternal mortality; Merck for Mothers has committed to understanding women’s experiences in order to improve the quality of maternity care. In its Evidence for Impact 2020 Research Compendium, it was found that: 1) racism and discrimination influence perceptions of respect and overall quality of care; 2) fragmented health care systems make it difficult to build patient-provider trust; and 3) patient-centered approaches need to be more sensitive to patient needs to ensure dignity and respect.

The Safer Childbirth Cities Initiative, founded in 2018, seeks to be a catalyst for the focused, locally-tailored engagement needed to bring community resources together to strengthen health systems for all to help women have healthy pregnancies, safe childbirths and life-long well-being. The program has expanded rapidly, and Merck recently announced that the newest grant is the 20th community-led project to be funded. The money is going to the Austin Community Foundation as a fiscal sponsor for the Black Mamas Community Collective, which supports a project to directly tackle racial inequities in maternal health outcomes and increase access to quality care for Black mothers and their families in Austin, TX.

Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and chief executive officer of Merck and a member of the Healthcare Leadership Council, stated in the press release, “Elevating Black and other historically marginalized voices, community leadership and local health solutions is a fundamental part of helping to reverse the health inequity that has persisted across the U.S. and globally.”

The Healthcare Leadership Council continues to work with its members on the systemic problem of health disparities and proudly promotes the efforts of each member organization to drive change and improve health experiences and outcomes.

 

Time to Discuss a “Health Equity Moonshot”

March 31, 2021
5:41 pm

This month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on the health inequities witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The topics discussed in that hearing warrant our sustained attention.

I’m particularly focused on the testimony of Eugene Woods, the president and CEO of Atrium Health (a Healthcare Leadership Council member), a North Carolina-based health system. Out of the tragedies we have witnessed during COVID-19, which have disproportionately affected racial and ethnic populations as well as areas with high rates of poverty and comparably limited healthcare access, Mr. Woods sees an opportunity to do something significant and transformative.

As he put it, “The COVID-19 pandemic has come at a great cost to the world. We should view this reality as an investment that allows us to emerge stronger.  Through unity and collaboration, government and industry are capable of great things. This has been, and still is, a core tenet of American exceptionalism.”

In his testimony, Mr. Woods offered the notion of a private-public collaboration not unlike the efforts that put astronauts on the moon or the Cancer Moonshot Initiative of a few years ago.  In fact, he referred to it as a “health equity moonshot” and suggested four priorities to address the equity gaps that have existed for too long but were made glaringly obvious during the pandemic.  They are:

  • Extending health coverage access beyond the current Public Health Emergency by utilizing innovative private models and government-based structures.
  • Creating worldwide standards for data collection and full data interoperability to enable real-time analytics.
  • Making broadband available to every rural and urban community in the country.
  • Using technology to support sustained well-being, particularly in underserved communities.

If we truly believe in the goal of accessible, high-quality healthcare for every American, then this is an idea that should receive extensive attention and discussion.  To quote Mr. Woods again, “While COVID-19 and the public health emergency we have faced may fade over time, the health inequities the pandemic uncovered will persist if we don’t take this moment to come together around an ambitious goal.”

The Extraordinary Pandemic Efforts You Didn’t See

March 19, 2021
7:57 am

America is well aware of the heroic work performed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by physicians, nurses and other front line healthcare professionals, tirelessly handling a rapidly escalating number of cases as the virus spread and hospitals were stretched to capacity and beyond.

But what we didn’t see was the vital work taking place behind the scenes to reconfigure healthcare data systems so that COVID-19 treatment guidelines could be rapidly disseminated, patient data could be made readily available, in-person exchanges could be shifted to telehealth, and more healthcare professionals could have access to critical data as they, too, were forced to work from home as America quarantined.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mayo Clinic Chief Information Officer Cris Ross described having to make decisions in days and weeks that would normally require months on how to make changes to the Clinic’s information technology systems in order to meet an unprecedented challenge.

He said, “We had to make close to 3,000 changes in our electronic health-records system to recognize rapidly evolving hospital-facility changes and protocols. Clinical guidelines for Covid treatment were developed and made available from within the records system. So, for example, if someone arrives at the emergency department who may have Covid, what are the steps? If that patient is admitted, what’s the next step? And if they’re sent to an ICU, what’s the next step?”

The rapid changes required of Mayo and other health systems when the pandemic struck underscores the importance of better preparing the nation for future health crises. Last year and into early 2021, the Healthcare Leadership Council worked with 100 different healthcare, employer and patient advocacy organizations to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to strengthen private-public collaborations on disaster readiness and response. They include the creation of a 21st century public health data infrastructure that will enable real time access to critical information necessary to get ahead of a rapidly evolving crisis like COVID-19.

Many of the recommendations in this report were included in the recently-passed American Rescue Act, but much more work remains to be done before the next catastrophe strikes.

An Innovative Approach in Minnesota to Close the Gap Between Mental Health Needs and Treatment

February 25, 2021
8:15 am

It has always been important to improve access to treatment for mental health and substance use disorders.  Now it’s imperative.

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, national numbers raised serious concerns.  Twenty percent of Americans reported experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder while also having substance abuse issues. Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990, and almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction with only one of every 10 receiving treatment for the condition.  The pandemic has worsened our society’s struggles. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in August of 2020, 53 percent of adults reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted as a result of the changes wrought by COVID-19. This, in turn, has caused the number of people with substance use disorders to rise.

Now, more than ever, investments must be made to ensure access to treatment and innovative ideas must be pursued to address these mental health challenges.  One such innovation is taking place in Minnesota.

One clear obstacle patients face is the lag time between the initial request for care and the availability of specialists and treatment programs. While this wait time is occurring, there is a heightened risk of suicide, drug overdose, or a change of heart about pursuing treatment. Recognizing this dilemma, M Health Fairview initiated a new program to bridge this gap. The program is designed to provide same-day access to either in-person care or virtual care with trained providers.  Additionally, the health system has included a mobile unit that proactively brings the support directly into the community. Emergency Medicine Physician and Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Levine emphasized that this program does not replace any type of care, but rather simply provides the stability patients need in their transition from initial treatment to longer-term care.

These are difficult times for so many Americans. Health providers like M Health Fairview are demonstrating innovation and leadership in meeting the urgent needs of those with mental health or substance use disorders.