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The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Biden is relaunching his cancer moonshot, but without more funding asks

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

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Hey, good morning — and a very warm welcome to our new Health 202 researcher, McKenzie Beard. She's a graduate student at American University who's been working with The Post's investigative team since August as part of a practicum at AU. 👏 👏 👏 

Below: Pfizer and BioNTech officially sought sign off from the FDA for the first coronavirus vaccine for children younger than 5. Hundreds of Native American tribes reached a tentative opioid settlement. But first: 

Biden's cancer moonshot, take two

President Biden is relaunching his cancer moonshot initiative, an effort he first started as vice president and which holds deeply personal meaning for him.

Today from the White House, Biden will announce his goal of cutting the death rate from the disease in half over the next 25 years, senior administration officials said yesterday. The move represents a renewal of his pledge to combat cancer and puts the heft of the federal government behind bolstering prevention, screening and research. 

  • The moonshot reboot includes forming a “cancer cabinet” of officials across the government; urging Americans to get screened for the disease after millions of delayed appointments amid the pandemic; and improving cancer treatment and detection.

But yet: The plan didn’t include an ask for more dollars, which some say are sorely needed. 

  • “The goals are clear and important, but what’s not clear is how we get there,” a patient advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the ire of the White House, told our colleague Laurie McGinley. “Where are the dollars coming from?”
  • A senior administration official said it was important to first bring the cancer cabinet and community together to develop ideas and expressed confidence there would be “robust funding going forward,” citing the bipartisan nature of addressing cancer.
Past meets present

The issue is deeply personal for Joe and Jill Biden, who have championed the cause ever since their son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. He was 46. 

  • “I believe that we need a moonshot in this country to cure cancer. It’s personal. But I know we can do this,” Joe Biden said in a 2015 speech in the White House Rose Garden announcing he wouldn’t run for president that next year. (More recently, Biden has used more measured language, expressing his goal to “end cancer as we know it.”)

President Obama launched the Cancer Moonshot initiative during his last year in office and put Biden in charge. Six years later, it’s now Biden’s shot to once again tackle one of the country’s leading causes of death. 

Senior administration officials are betting progress made during the cancer moonshot’s first years can galvanize new scientific advances. 

  • This includes efforts to find a way to detect many cancers at once through blood tests. Scientists are also analyzing whether the mRNA technology used to create the coronavirus vaccines could stop cancer cells when they first appear.
More money?

But to do that — and reduce the rate of deaths by at least 50 percent in 25 years — advocates say an infusion of cash is needed.

The initial $1.8 billion in funding for the cancer moonshot is set to run out after fiscal year 2023, raising critical questions about whether lawmakers on Capitol Hill will pour more money into Biden’s effort. The funding level for 2022 fiscal year is expected to be $194 million and will increase to $216 million in the 2023 fiscal year.

  • “We need to understand that if we’re really serious about this, we need to make sure there's funding available to develop the new technologies and implement them,” Margaret Foti, the CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research, told The Health 202, emphasizing that “new technologies are expensive."

And still unclear: Whether a proposal to help spur biomedical research will get off the ground. Last year, Biden proposed creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (or ARPA-H). 

The bipartisan leaders of the Senate HELP Committee may add the new agency into their wide-ranging plan to combat future pandemics. 

  • But…“There's still some basic decisions that need to be made, like where it’s housed, before we actually add the language,” the panel’s chair, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), told The Post last week.
  • Meanwhile, an influential House panel will hold a hearing next week on ARPA-H, and a Democratic aide said lawmakers will likely ask witnesses for their input on where the agency should be placed. A senior administration official expressed support for housing it within the National Institutes of Health, though some have called for it to be its own independent agency.


It's official: Coronavirus vaccines for kids under 5 could come this month

Coronavirus vaccinations for children 6 months to 5 years old may soon be a reality after Pfizer, and its partner BioNTech, formally asked the Food and Drug Administration to greenlight two doses of the shot for the age group, our colleagues Carolyn Y. Johnson and Laurie report.  

Recent trials have indicated that the vaccine is safe but has yielded disappointing results for the effectiveness of the two-shot regimen for preventing the virus in children 2 years old to 5 years old. It's expected the shot will eventually be three doses.

  • The latest data has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, and the companies didn’t summarize it in their announcement. But that’s expected to become public in advance of a mid-February meeting of the FDA’s outside advisers.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? 

Desire among parents to vaccinate their children in the age range is up from last year, according to a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This comes as uptake in vaccination rates among children ages 5 to 11 has been slow, suggesting some parents may be hesitant to get their younger children vaccinated when the shot is authorized. Over the past two years, 280 children under age five have died from covid-19, according to the CDC.

  • 31 percent of parents say they’ll vaccinate their child right away when a shot is authorized, up from 20 percent in last July.
  • 29 percent of parents said they would “wait and see” before getting their child under 5 vaccinated, down from 40 percent in July.

In the courts

A landmark deal: Hundreds of Native American tribes — who have been disproportionately harmed by the opioid epidemic — tentatively agreed to settle with the country’s three major drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson.

Behind the deal: The effort resolves litigation in dozens of states with tribal reservations, The Post’s Meryl Kornfield reports. McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Johnson & Johnson would pay tens of millions of dollars to the federally recognized tribes. 

  • The tribes’ claim: They were saturated by highly addictive painkillers, and they argue distributors shipped the pills without regard for signs of abuse and death.
  • The other side: The companies deny wrongdoing, contending they complied with federal drug laws.

The deal marks a first for Native American tribes, Meryl notes, as they’re often relegated to the sidelines in mass tort litigation, such as during that of Big Tobacco in the 1990s.

In other health news

Here's what else you need to know:

  • Early reports suggest a new version of the omicron variant may be slightly more transmissible, but World Health Organization officials say there is no indication of an increased risk for severe disease, though more information is still needed, The Post's Hannah Knowles reports.
  • Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke last week and is expected to make a full recovery. The news comes as Democrats’ hold a razor thin majority and don’t have votes to spare.
  • House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he’s tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the latest House leader to report an infection despite being vaccinated, per our colleague Felicia Sonmez.
  • A trio of Democratic senators penned a letter urging the Justice Department to crack down on retailers, especially those on the digital marketplace, selling counterfeit masks, The Post's Mariana Alfaro writes.

Fact check

How the falsehood of athletes dying from vaccines spread across the web

Faulty rumors repeated by a U.S. senator that claim some deaths of athletes were linked to the coronavirus vaccine has roots in foreign media, The Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler reports.  

Follow the misinformation trail: An investigation into comments made by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) during a Jan. 27 interview on “The Charlie Kirk Show” revealed that the lawmaker cited information that was traced back to a debunked article published by an obscure Austrian website with links to the country’s far-right populist party. 

The story was disputed by medical experts. Yet, its false claims spread “like wildfire” on social media and across the globe, according to The New York Times.

  • “Any vaccine carries some risk, but these lists of athletes, often assembled by anonymous individuals with no apparent medical credentials, are sketchy and anecdotal,” Glenn writes.

The bottom line: Medical experts say the risk of dying from covid-19 is far greater than risks from getting the shot.

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.