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The Health 202

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

Abortion rights advocates never got to celebrate Roe's 50th anniversary

The Health 202

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

Good Monday morning. Grab your coffee cause Congress is back this week. ☕ Send what you’re watching on Capitol Hill to rachel.roubein@washpost.com

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Today’s edition: Jeff Zients, who previously oversaw the administration’s coronavirus response, will be selected as President Biden’s new chief of staff. Biosecurity advisers for the National Institutes of Health are urging tighter oversight of pathogen research. But first …

Instead of celebrating Roe, abortion rights advocates find themselves in the trenches

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling, but abortion rights groups didn’t celebrate it like they might have once expected.

Instead, they’re fighting more than a dozen state-level bans that quickly fell into place after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to the procedure in June. 

Over the weekend, the Women’s March held roughly 200 events in states and cities across the country, including its marquee march this year in Madison, Wis. Planned Parenthood’s political and advocacy affiliates are hosting a week of actions, such as rallies in state capitals and trainings focused on reducing the stigma of abortion. And Vice President Harris pushed for national legislation to protect abortion rights in a speech delivered in Florida, a state that bans most abortions after 15 weeks. 

The moment underscores the battles to come in a post-Roe America. Antiabortion advocates spent 49 years working to overturn Roe — and now abortion rights groups are scrambling to reinstate those protections. 

  • “We will continue to stand together in the fight to protect the freedom and liberty of all people, of all women everywhere,” Harris said Sunday to a cheering crowd in Tallahassee, Fla. “Here now, on this 50th anniversary, let us resolve to make history and secure this right.”
At the White House

Harris’s speech in Florida has political significance. 

The state passed its 15-week ban last year — a prohibition on the procedure that’s more permissive than many other surrounding states in the South. It’s one of the states where further restrictions are expected to be up for debate this year. And it’s the home of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has emerged as the most highly anticipated potential 2024 challenger to former president Donald Trump. 

With an eye on a GOP presidency, antiabortion advocates were quick to denounce the Biden administration’s efforts. 

  • “Vice President Harris could not have set up a starker contrast between the radical abortion lobby and the compassion and common sense of the American people,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement before the speech. The prominent antiabortion leader met with DeSantis earlier this month. She said she was “extremely satisfied” with what she heard, and that it wasn’t yet clear where the state legislature would go next in terms of abortion restrictions. 

In addition to Harris’s speech … The White House released a memorandum directing federal agencies to consider issuing new guidance aimed at helping patients, providers and pharmacies that want to legally access, prescribe or provide the abortion pill mifepristone. It’s the latest salvo in the war over medication abortion, and comes after the Food and Drug Administration permitted some retail pharmacies to dispense abortion pills for the first time earlier this month. 

But some experts said the memo was vague and didn’t necessarily signal major new changes.

“I didn't get a sense from this memo what concrete things the Biden administration is going to do to help reduce that confusion” over how laws apply to abortion pills, said Rachel Rebouché, dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.

Stat’s Helen Branswell:

Around the country

In Madison, abortion rights supporters marched 50 years after the Supreme Court’s Jan. 22, 1973, ruling.

Why was Wisconsin selected as the main march? For one, there’s a critical contest this spring that could decide the ideological composition of the state’s highest court, and thus, the future of abortion rights there. And it also highlights how organizers of the Women’s March — which had faced allegations of anti-semitism and infighting in its early years — are increasingly focused on the states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

“The fight is now in the states, and so we're moving our mobilizations to the states,” said Rachel O'Leary Carmona, the executive director of the Women’s March. 

Other abortion rights groups are ramping up their state-based strategies as many states’ legislative sessions kick off for the first time since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. NARAL Pro-Choice America is beefing up its training for organizers and volunteers at the state and local level. And Planned Parenthood is holding a rally in front of the New Jersey state house and an event in Pennsylvania today. 

Some groups say their ultimate goal is not just to re-establish Roe’s protections. They point to wanting to end barriers to accessing abortions that were in place during Roe, such as money, distance and certain regulations on clinics.

“We want to create something better,” said Ianthe Metzger, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman. “It’s going to take a long time, obviously. Roe didn’t fall overnight, and it’s going to be more than this election and the next election for us to build what we want.”

White House prescriptions

Zients to be Biden’s next chief of staff

President Biden will name Jeff Zients to serve as the next White House chief of staff, tapping his former coronavirus czar to take over for Ron Klain, who is expected to step down in the weeks after the State of the Union on Feb. 7, The Post’s Tyler Pager and Yasmeen Abutaleb scooped.

Zients left the White House in April after steering the Biden administration’s coronavirus response and leading the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history. He returned to the White House in the fall to help Klain prepare for staff turnover after the midterms. In recent weeks, Zients has been assigned to different projects, in what some view as preparing him for the top role. 

Zients, who has spent much of his career as a management consultant in the private sector, held several senior roles within the Obama administration, including running the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council. He developed a reputation as Mr. Fix-It for his strong operational skills, including helping to fix the troubled rollout of the Obama administration’s health-care website, HealthCare.gov.

The big picture: Zients will take on the top role amid a challenging stretch for Biden’s presidency, as House Republicans launch a flurry of probes and the attorney general has appointed a special counsel to investigate the handling of classified documents. Oh, and Biden is also preparing to launch his reelection bid.

Jen Psaki, former White House press secretary:

Agency alert

NIH biosecurity advisers urge tighter oversight of pathogen research

Scientists advising the National Institutes of Health on Friday released a draft report urging increased government oversight of experiments that alter dangerous pathogens, our colleague Joel Achenbach reports.

The biosecurity advisory board’s recommendations follow a nearly year-long review of the agency’s existing guidelines. Here are some key takeaways from the draft report:

  • The definition of “enhanced potential pandemic pathogens” should be expanded beyond the most lethal viruses and bacteria to also include less deadly pathogens that are extremely transmissible — such as SARS-CoV-2. 
  • The Department of Health and Human Services should issue clearer guidelines for NIH-funded institutions and investigators to facilitate more consistent and efficient implementation and oversight, as well as tighten control of NIH-funded studies overseas. 
  • There should be more transparency into the government’s oversight of potentially risky experiments to bolster the public’s trust in their review process, which has been eroded partly by the controversy over the origin of the coronavirus.

The draft report garnered mixed reactions from outside experts. Many scientists are calling for greater clarity for research guidelines. But at least one virologist was skeptical, saying it contained “magical thinking" about researchers’ abilities to predict the pandemic potential of a pathogen.

Next steps: The advisory board will hold a public meeting Friday on the recommendations.

Coronavirus

The ‘tripledemic’ that wasn’t

Early and severe waves of RSV and influenza had many doctors bracing for a dire winter, with the coronavirus roaring back and the holidays providing fuel for viruses to spread. But no such surge materialized, and the looming threat of a “tripledemic” has continued to fade, The Post’s Fenit Nirappil reports. 

Weekly emergency room visits for all three viruses combined peaked in early December — with no post-holiday resurgence, according to a new dashboard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Notable: The expected uptick of covid-19 infections hasn’t overwhelmed hospitals in the way it did during the first two pandemic winters. Coronavirus patients occupy 5 percent of hospital beds nationally, compared with 21 percent at this point last year, per the CDC. 

Looking ahead: Experts are cautioning that the country could see additional increases in flu, which sometimes has two peaks, and another RSV season in spring. Doctors are closely monitoring the highly transmissible XBB.1.5 subvariant of coronavirus that now accounts for half of all new U.S. infections.

Chart check

Daybook

Welcome back, Congress. The House and Senate are both back in session this week. 

On tap today: Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, will answer your questions about the coronavirus at 3:30 p.m. with health reporters Sabrina Malhi and Fenit Nirappil. Send in your questions here

In other health news

  • The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the Abbott Laboratories plant at the heart of last year’s infant formula shortage; a company spokesperson said Abbott is “cooperating fully,” The Post’s Jacob Bogage, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Laura Reiley report. 
  • The Food and Drug Administration is declining to grant accelerated approval to Eli Lilly’s experimental Alzheimer’s drug donanemab, saying that the agency needs safety data on more patients, our colleague Laurie McGinley writes. 
  • A federal judge ruled on Friday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) violated the First Amendment and Florida’s Constitution when he suspended an elected state prosecutor last year over his pledge not to bring abortion-related criminal charges — but the judge said he didn’t have the authority to reinstate him and dismissed the case. 

Health reads

Aggressive treatment guidelines for childhood obesity getting backlash (By Ariana Eunjung Cha | The Washington Post)

FTC wants 'pharma bro' Martin Shkreli held in contempt for violating lifelong ban on working in pharma (By Ed Silverman l Stat)

Inside the Hospital Where Damar Hamlin’s Life Was Saved (By Gina Kolata | The New York Times)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.

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