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COVID vaccine distribution gets off to a shaky start

January 7, 2021, 11:56 PM UTC

A Happy New Year to all of you, readers.

It’s good to be back in your inbox after the holiday break. It feels a little strange given the events of the past 24 hours. But a pandemic doesn’t stop for a political news cycle, however bleak. In fact, it’s inextricably linked to the decisions of our leaders.

I don’t just mean political leaders, though they play a critical role which they’ve often bungled, including with the current pace of COVID vaccine distribution. We’re beginning to see the last mile problems, the ultimate delivery of a product to a person, which come with such an ambitious vaccination campaign.

Earlier today, the American Hospital Association (AHA) put it bluntly in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar: “There was great celebration in America’s hospitals and health systems last month as we administered the first vaccines to our courageous clinical staff who have been working to save the lives of COVID-19 patients. But the slow pace of the vaccine rollout has led to concern about whether the task of vaccinating all who are able to take the vaccine will happen as quickly as federal leaders have suggested it would.”

There are plenty of problems that led to this moment, and I’ll have a more wide-ranging report in the coming days. But here’s just a sampling of the issues: How do you ensure there are enough available syringes and glass vials to distribute the vaccine? That’s one problem that could be solved by the Defense Production Act (DPA), which can mobilize firms to manufacture essential components. Trump administration officials have previously stated that the DPA is already being deployed.

Then there’s the logistical question of which vaccine someone may actually receive, and how the records of those vaccines are kept. Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID vaccine has one set of requirements. Moderna’s vaccine has another, with less stringent cooling requirements.

That’s a massive factor in how these vaccines will be distributed. For instance, would a rural health system be shipped the Moderna vaccine rather than Pfizer’s, whereas larger health systems get the latter due to their operational capacity? And how exactly are electronic health record vendors and logistics firms ensuring that things don’t break along the supply chain?

Much more on this soon. Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee
sy.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

Alcohol treatment startup Monument raises $10.3 million. 2020 was all about the growth of telemedicine. The pandemic forced many to rely on digital services, especially if they don't have life-threatening conditions, in order to protect COVID patients and health care workers. The trend shows no signs of slowing down in 2021, including for firms like Monument which offer virtual coaching and community support services for those who may struggle with alcohol addiction. The company has raised $10.3 million in a Series A funding round led by VMG Catalyst and, according to the firm, has already connected with more than 12,000 members.

INDICATIONS

Pfizer and Sarepta go head to head on gene therapy. Pfizer, already a titan of the life sciences industry and the maker of the first emergency authorized COVID vaccine in the U.S., is also continuing its foray into gene therapy. The company is squaring up against biotech Sarepta, a rare disease specialist, for a gene therapy treatment for the muscle-wasting disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This would be the first gene therapy for Duchenne in late-stage development, and Sarepta will certainly be keeping an eye on the timeline given its own specialties in the space. (BioPharma Dive)

THE BIG PICTURE

A New Year and new drug price hikes. Drug prices aren't an easy thing to parse, and pretty much everyone in the industry, from distributors to pharmacy benefit managers to pharma companies themselves, tend to point the finger at someone else for why your medicine is so expensive. That's a nuanced tale, but a regular drug industry habit is to hike list prices for their products at the beginning of the year. This year was no exception. To cite just one example, AbbVie's Humira, the highest grossing drug in the world, just got a 7.4% price hike. How much individuals pay is a more complicated issue. But keep in mind that this was a product first approved in 2002. (Fortune)

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