with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The pharmaceutical industry keeps turning up the dial on lobbying, setting massive new spending records in its intensive effort to influence Congress and the Biden administration.

Yet the administration isn’t capitulating to all of the industry’s demands.

To be fair, the White House did back away from including an industry-hated drug pricing proposal in its latest spending plan. Yet this week, President Biden angered drugmakers when he said he supports the waiving of intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines.

The industry increased its lobbying spending by 6.3 percent in the first quarter.

That’s compared to the first quarter of 2020. Drug and health product manufacturers, along with their national association, spent a combined $92 million to lobby the federal government from January through March, according to the website Open Secrets. 

That puts the industry on track to break its spending record for the second year in a row. Not only that, but its first-quarter spending was more than double what was spent by the second-highest-spending industry, electronics companies.

There are currently 1,270 registered lobbyists for pharmaceuticals and health products — more than two lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Vaccine manufacturer Pfizer poured money into lobbying.

Pfizer, maker of one of the three coronavirus vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States, was the biggest spender of any individual drug company. 

And last year, as it was developing its vaccine, the federal government agreed to pay the company $1.95 billion for the first 100 million doses it produced. Earlier this week, the company reported it had $3.5 billion in revenue from sales of the vaccine so far this year.

Pfizer was outflanked on lobbying spending only by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — the national association that represents the interests of drugmakers. PhRMA spent $8.6 million on lobbying in the first quarter.

Both Pfizer and PhRMA lobbied heavily against waiving intellectual property rights for the vaccines.

PhRMA argued that allowing more manufacturers to make shots would result in competition for limited ingredients, impeding existing production and leading to counterfeit vaccines. PhRMA President Steve Ubl also charged that it would give U.S. competitors — such as China and Russia, although he didn’t name those countries — access to American innovations.

“This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives,” Ubl said in a statement. 

Yet on Wednesday, the Biden administration threw its support behind the proposal, framing it as a necessary bid to speed the shots to billions in the developing world, Dan Diamond, Tyler Pager and Jeff Stein reported.

President Biden on May 5, told reporters that he supports a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines. (Reuters)

U.S. officials had helped block a World Trade Organization proposal that was introduced last year to stop enforcing patents for coronavirus-related medical products. But “dozens of developing countries have pushed for the proposal, arguing that it would allow them to rapidly produce their own generic vaccines, rather than wait months or years for sufficient doses,” our colleagues write.

“The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines," U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said.

But the U.S. alone can't guarantee a waiver. Any one of the 164 member nations could torpedo the effort, our colleagues note.

“Myriad hurdles remain before that stance could become international policy — if ever,” they write.

“As a result, it could be months, or longer, before the World Trade Organization reaches an agreement to temporarily waive the protections and years before countries build factories and amass the materials and expertise to produce the vaccines, experts say.”

Industry lobbyists were gratified by another decision made recently by the White House.

Biden didn’t include H.R. 3 in his “Families First” spending plan.

That bill, which has become the cornerstone legislation for Democrats seeking to reduce high drug prices, had been expected to be included in Biden’s measure. But instead, the president merely called on Congress to pass the measure during his joint address to Congress last week. 

Congressional Democrats are still moving forward with H.R. 3, vowing to get it passed this year. But as we’ve explained, it faces many obstacles considering their narrow majorities in the House and the Senate.

Conservative activists are panning H.R. 3, too.

The measure, which all but two House Republicans voted against back in 2019, has been seized upon by the conservative American Action Network.

Earlier this week, the group launched a $4 million campaign using television, digital advertising and phone calls in 43 House districts to push back against the bill. The ads — which ask, “What’s a life worth?” — argue that the bill would mean fewer cures and less access to new treatments such as the coronavirus vaccines.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: Close to a million people signed up for Obamacare during a special enrollment period this spring.

Nearly 940,000 people enrolled in Affordable Care Act coverage between Feb. 15 and April 30, taking advantage of a special enrollment period opened by the Biden administration, according to new data released by the Department of Health and Human Services. Enrollment will remain open in most states until Aug. 15.

“The surge in sign-ups reflects a growing demand for health insurance. Many Americans have lost job-based coverage during the pandemic, and others who were uninsured before found themselves newly interested in coverage,” the New York Times’s Margot Sanger-Katz and Sarah Kliff report.

It may also reflect more spending to advertise the special enrollment period and increased financial assistance with premiums following the passage of billions of dollars in subsidies as part of the most recent stimulus package. Of the new enrollees, nearly half bought coverage last month after the stimulus package went into effect, Margot and Sarah write. 

OOF: Booze, bud and cash are just some of the perks being offered to entice people to get vaccines.

“With cities and states charting a declining demand for doses, some have turned to these audacious, outlandish and perhaps quixotic incentives to lure in vaccine apathetes,” The Post’s Reis Thebault and Paulina Firozi report. “Those most eager and able have largely been vaccinated. Now, the hard part: Getting shots into the arms of the people for whom hesitancy, priority or access are the biggest barriers.”

Here are some of the perks that are being offered to people who get vaccines:

  • Breweries in New Jersey are offering a free beer to anyone who gets their first shot this month as part of the state’s “Shot and Beer” program. New Orleans establishments handed out “shots for shots.”
  • For those who prefer weed, D.C. Marijuana Justice stationed volunteers near vaccination sites and gave away 4,200 joints on April 20.
  • In Memphis, people can enter their names into a raffle to win a free car.
  • On Saturday, the eve of Mother’s Day, the first 51 people at each of D.C.’s six walk-up vaccine clinics will receive free flowers and plants. Sites are also offering temporary tattoos that read “Vaxed for Mom” or “Vaxed for Dad.”
OUCH: California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has outsourced public health activities to the private sector.

A Kaiser Health News analysis found that at least 30 tech and health companies in the state received lucrative no-bid government contracts or helped fund and carry out critical public health activities during the pandemic.

“Newsom’s unprecedented reliance on private companies — including health and technology start-ups — has come at the expense of California’s overtaxed and underfunded public health system,” KHN’s Angela Hart writes. “Current and former public health officials say Newsom has entrusted the essential work of government to private-sector health and tech allies, hurting the ability of the state and local health departments to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for future threats.”

Many of the tech and health-care industry giants that received contracts are major donors to Newsom’s political campaigns or charitable causes. For instance, Salesforce, a San Francisco based software company, helped create My Turn, California’s centralized vaccine clearinghouse, which has cost the state $93 million. The CEO of the company, Marc Benioff, is a repeat donor to Newsom and the godfather of his first child.

More in coronavirus news

  • Covid-19 deaths worldwide may be double official estimates, according to a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. IHME estimates that the pandemic has killed 6.9 million people worldwide. Many of these deaths may have gone unreported if people died at home or were not tested for the virus before their death, Reuters reports. The IHME came up with the estimate by comparing the anticipated number of deaths from all causes against the actual number of deaths that occurred during the pandemic.
In a New Delhi hospital patients were wedged in between each other and doctors resorted to using anesthesia machines to ventilate patients on April 29. (Reuters)
  • Flu cases dropped 96 percent during the pandemic as Americans adopted infection prevention methods such as face masks, hand-washing and social distancing. This last flu season saw only 2,243 confirmed flu cases, compared with 101,000 the year before, according to data released by the Epic Health Research Network.

Elsewhere in health care

One in 6 workers say they are sticking around in unwanted jobs for the health benefits.

The fear of leaving a job and losing health benefits is even more pronounced among Black workers and those making less than $48,000 a year, a poll conducted by West Health and Gallup shows.

“Approximately 158 million people, or more than half of the U.S. adult population, receive health insurance via their own employer or the employer of a household member. As such, the 16% of workers who are remaining in their jobs for the sake of their benefits will frequently extend to other individuals other than themselves, bolstering their reluctance to seek out other work,” Gallup’s Dan Witters writes.

A syringe exchange credited with helping end an Indiana HIV outbreak may be forced to close.

The needle exchange program in Scott County was hailed as a success in 2015 after it helped curb a devastating HIV crisis in the county of 24,000. That experience helped pave the way for similar programs across the nation. But it's now under threat after a local official proposed shutting it down.

“The new debate in Indiana comes amid a wave of anti-syringe-exchange activism across the country, including a controversial new law in West Virginia that critics say could force many local programs there to close. West Virginia is experiencing a worst-in-the-nation HIV outbreak not unlike Indiana’s six years ago,” Stat News’s Lev Facher reports

Jerome Adams, who served as Indiana’s health commissioner and later the U.S. surgeon general, has been criticized for not doing enough to push then-Gov. Mike Pence to move more quickly to allow needle exchanges in Indiana. But Adams is outspoken now about the need to protect Scott County’s program in the face of local opposition.

The Biden administration has also made it clear that it supports needle exchange programs, as well as other measures to reduce the risk of overdose and death that comes from the use of illicit drugs.

Sugar rush