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Brainstorm Health: Ebola Vaccine, Obamacare Profitability, New Migraine Drug, David Tepper and Allergan

Happy Friday. The World Health Organization has raised the threat level for an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after additional suspected cases of the disease were identified in Mbandaka, a Congo River port city with over a million residents. Mbandaka, importantly, also serves as a hub for traffic across equatorial Africa—a region where national borders can be especially “porous,” making the risk of international spread all the greater, says an emergency committee of the WHO.

The new suspected cases of the disease follow the reports of 45 others and 25 deaths across the country since April 4. Fourteen of those cases were confirmed as Ebola, according to the global health organization, which now assesses the risk of much wider spread in the region to be “very high,” the agency’s second-highest threat level.

The WHO now says nine countries neighboring Congo are “at high risk of spread.”

In what could be a milestone of progress—and I emphasize “could be”—the threat of outbreak will be met this time with a new weapon, a vaccine that has been demonstrated in at least some human trials to have “high protective efficacy and effectiveness to prevent Ebola virus disease.” The Merck vaccine rVSV-ZEBOV, developed at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, was tested in several thousand people who were either contacts or “contacts of contacts” of individuals with confirmed Ebola virus disease after a 2015-16 outbreak in Guinea, West Africa. None of those vaccinated developed the disease after 10 days, even as 16 people in the unvaccinated comparator group did, according to a report in the Lancet. It remains unclear how long that apparent protective effect will last, though evidence suggests than antibodies to the disease in vaccinated individuals can last two years or more.

At least a few researchers have suggested that there should be a question mark on this recent study, despite the large number of people tested. But public health officials are moving forward with what they call a “ring vaccination.” The WHO tweeted out on Wednesday that “A first batch of 4000 #Ebola vaccine doses” had just arrived in Kinshasa, the Congo’s capital city.

We will see soon enough if we’ve reached a turning point in one of the greatest public health challenges around.

Clifton Leaf, Editor in Chief, FORTUNE
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

VA strikes deal with Cerner. The Department of Veterans Affairs has put the speculation to rest and will be partnering with Cerner on its long-awaited project to modernize the VA’s electronic health records system. That means both the VA and the Department of Defense will have identical EHRs when all is said and done. Interoperability headaches have long marred the military electronic medical records system. (Healthcare IT News)

INDICATIONS

FDA approves migraine prevention drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday approved a first-of-its-kind migraine treatment from Novartis and Amgen. The treatment, Aimovig, is meant for chronic migraine sufferers and may help reduce the number of migraines patients experience in a given month. A number of companies are developing these kinds of migraine therapies, part of a class called CGRP inhibitors. (Fortune)

David Tepper gets FTC clearance to purchase more Allergan shares. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has given David Tepper’s Appaloosa Management the green light to purchase more shares of Botox maker Allergan, in which Appaloosa already owns a 1% stake. The new approval gives Tepper leeway to take an activist stance on Allergan, whose shares have tumbled nearly 27% in the past 12 months. (CNBC)

THE BIG PICTURE

Obamacare insurers were on the upswing in 2017. A new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis finds that, despite the cascade of insurer exits and general drama over Obamacare since President Trump’s inauguration, insurers selling plans under the health law have actually been on the path to profitability as the market stabilized following its nascent years. “These new data from 2017 offer further evidence that insurers in the individual market are regaining profitability, even as political and policy uncertainty, repeal of the individual mandate penalty as part of tax reform legislation, and proposed regulations to expand loosely-regulated short-term insurance plans cloud expectations for the future,” wrote the authors, adding that without various Obamacare cuts and moves like the individual mandate repeal, premiums increases for next year would likely have been modest. (Kaiser Family Foundation

Trump administration takes aim at Planned Parenthood, again. The Trump administration is planning major changes to the federal family planning program, Politico reports, by placing new restrictions on health care providers who receive Title X funding. The changed would reportedly “prohibit health care providers who accept the funds from making referrals for abortion”—another regulatory swipe at organizations like Planned Parenthood. (Politico)

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Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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