Winter is here!

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

The Wall Street Journal reports that “The 2021 winter solstice [took] place on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 3:59 p.m. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the international standard time used by astronomers. That is 7:59 a.m. Pacific Time and 10:59 a.m. Eastern Time. * * * On the winter solstice, our planet’s [23.5 degree] tilt brings the South Pole closest to the sun—and the Antarctic Circle gets 24 hours of daylight. The North Pole is tilted away from the sun, and the Arctic Circle is shrouded in darkness for nearly a full day. * * * The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the point at which the season’s short days start to lengthen—continuing until the summer solstice in June, when there is the longest period of daylight and the shortest period of darkness there.”

Winter solstice 2019 was pre-pandemic. Winter solstice 2020 conincided with the introduction of the mRNA vaccines in the U.S. and this winter solstice is expected to coincide with the introduction of the early onset COVID pills from Pfizer and Merck.

Bloomberg informs us that

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize a pair of pills from Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co. to treat Covid-19 as soon as this week, according to people familiar with the matter — a milestone in the fight against the pandemic that will soon expand therapies for the ill.

An announcement may come as early as Wednesday, according to three of the people. They asked not to be identified ahead of the authorization and cautioned that the plan could change. 

Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, and Merck’s molnupiravir are intended for higher-risk people who test positive for the coronavirus. The treatments, in which patients take a series of pills at home over several days, could ease the burden on stretched hospitals with infections poised to soar through the winter in the U.S. 

This is similar to the roll out of the mRNA vaccines which initially administered to higher-risk people as well as first responders. FiercePharma tells us that “Pfizer expects to make 80 million courses of COVID drug Paxlovid by the end of 2022.” Bloomberg adds that “’It’s the biggest thing to happen in the pandemic after vaccines,’” said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute.” For what it’s worth, the FEHBlog shares this sentiment.

In other COVID treatment news, Medscape reports that

A “definitive study” from Johns Hopkins University researchers and others shows that convalescent plasma can cut hospital admissions for COVID-19 by 54% if therapy is administered within 8 days of symptom onset.

In the study of 1181 adults randomly assigned to high-titer convalescent plasma or placebo, 2.9% of people receiving the therapy were hospitalized compared to 6.3% who received placebo control plasma.

This translates to a 54% risk reduction for hospitalization with convalescent plasma. * * *

Whereas many convalescent plasma studies were done in hospitalized patients, this is one of only a handful performed in outpatients, the researchers note.

There is a regulatory catch. The FDA restricted emergency use authorization (EUA) for convalescent plasma in February 2021 to include only high-dose titer plasma and to limit the therapy to hospitalized patients with early disease or for immunocompromised people who cannot mount an adequate antibody response.

[Dr. David] Sullivan and colleagues hope their findings will prompt the FDA to expand the EUA to include outpatients.

From the White House front, the President spoke this afternoon about an enhanced federal government response to Omicron, including federal government run testing and vaccination sites and federally funded home delivery of rapid COVID tests.

Govexec explains that

The administration will launch federal testing sites around the country, standing up the first in New York City before Christmas. It will establish subsequent sites in states and communities where capacity is constrained, a senior administration official who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity said on Monday, with those going up in January and February. The government will once again deploy hundreds of federal personnel to boost vaccination capacity around the country, with the goal of boosting capacity by thousands of shots per week. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will oversee pop-up vaccination sites operated by the federal government, with the first ones going to Washington and New Mexico.  * * *

The White House also announced it was purchasing 500 million tests and will soon set up a website for any Americans to order one for free. The tests will be available in January and delivered by mail for free, though the White House is still finalizing how many each individual will be entitled to order. The administration pledged to boost its use of the Defense Production Act to boost the supply of at-home, rapid tests.

It’s not yet clear whether this initiative replaces the earlier proposal to have health plans reimburse their members for these over the counter tests.

The San Franciso Chronicle seeks to put the transmissibility of Omicron in perspective

The reproductive number known as R0, pronounced “R naught,” measures a disease’s transmissibility at the beginning of a pandemic with no preexisting immunity, said Warner Greene, a virologist and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. It represents how many people one sick person will infect.

According to a study released in October, the original COVID-19 strain that emerged from Wuhan has an R0 value of 2.79. The delta variant has a value of between 5 to 6 — about twice as contagious as the original strain.

Chicken pox has an R0 value of 9-10. The R0 value of measles is estimated at 12 to 18.

Greene said to really know the true R0 value of omicron, more information is needed. He cited an estimate from Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School Of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, that omicron could have an R0 of 10.

Chin-Hong said “a lot more fully vaccinated people will get breakthrough infections, but will not likely get very ill and are very unlikely to die.”

For unvaccinated people, the situation is much more serious.

“It will be very difficult to avoid getting infected with omicron,” Swartzberg said. “You may have been lucky with the other variants and the ancestral strain. It’s unlikely you will be with omicron. The unvaccinated will be the biggest spreaders of omicron and they will be the ones most likely hospitalized from it.”

No joke.

From the National Institutes of Health front —

  • “Yesterday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its first approval of a long-acting HIV prevention medication. Developed by ViiV Healthcare, the medicine is long-acting cabotegravir injected once every two months. FDA has approved the medicine for use by adults and adolescents weighing at least 35 kilograms who are at risk of sexually acquiring HIV. This milestone marks a vital expansion of biomedical HIV prevention options available to people in the United States.”
  • “Despite important advances in the understanding and treatment of oral diseases and conditions, many people in the U.S. still have chronic oral health problems and lack of access to care, according to a report by the National Institutes of Health. Oral Health in America: Advances and Challenges, is a follow-up to the seminal 2000 Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General.” * * * “The authors make several recommendations to improve oral health in America, which include the need for health care professionals to work together to provide integrated oral, medical, and behavioral health care in schools, community health centers, nursing homes, and medical care settings, as well as dental clinics. They also identify the need to improve access to care by developing a more diverse oral health care workforce, addressing the rising cost of dental education, expanding insurance coverage, and improving the overall affordability of care.”

From the Affordable Care Act front, the Internal Revenue Service announced today that the applicable dollar amount that health plans must use to calculate the [PCORI] fee imposed by sections 4375 and 4376 for policy years and plan years that end on or after October 1, 2021, and before October 1, 2022, is $2.79″ per bellybutton. The immediately preceding years fee was $2.66 per bellybutton.

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