Health

Search for COVID ‘Patient Zero’; J&J Coming Up Short; Price Hikes for Uninsured

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Search Continues for COVID ‘Patient Zero’

As public health experts seek to determine the pandemic’s origin, the trail still officially ends with China’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, the Washington Post reported.

“He was not a seafood vendor, bat hunter, or lab scientist,” the Post wrote of “sparse details” about the Wuhan resident described in a joint World Health Organization (WHO)-China report in March. “He was an accountant surnamed Chen who shopped at a very large supermarket.” However, researchers have continued to collect clues as to what might have happened before the accountant fell ill, the Post reported.

In Europe, French researchers have said they found traces of the virus in November, the Post reported. And in a highly controversial study, scientists from the National Cancer Institute of Milan and the University of Siena have said they found that 10% of nearly 1,000 blood samples analyzed from a cancer screening trial contained coronavirus antibodies. The samples, the scientists have said, included some from September 2019.

In Wuhan, official searches for patients before the accountant have proved unsuccessful, despite the Chinese government’s recent claims of high-tech surveillance capabilities, the Post reported. But by November 2019, the coronavirus had likely infected others in Wuhan, according to scientists. The city was busy with events — including the Military World Games — that could have created “endless paths that a virus could travel.”

Though leaders from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have “vehemently denied” any lab leaks, and the WHO report called the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely,” some scientists have said they believe it remains a possibility, the Post reported.

Regardless, the Post reported that, “The origin search has been hobbled by scarce early information, some of it unreliable or missing.” Even online archives of two local state-run newspapers in China — the Hubei Daily and Chutian Metro Daily — can no longer be accessed before Nov. 5, 2019, the Post reported, citing its own checks of the sites.

“Even as few as 13 new sequences, which if you think about it, is a tiny amount, can fairly substantially modify the understanding of the pandemic origin,” Sergei Pond, a Temple University biology professor, who has been analyzing early SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences, told the Post.

J&J Remains Shy of Delivery Targets

Though the FDA last Friday cleared a batch of vaccine that could supply millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, the pharmaceutical giant remains nearly 40 million doses short of its commitment to deliver 100 million doses to the federal government by the end of June, The New York Times reported.

Johnson & Johnson has been prevented from producing much of its vaccine since April, when regulators shut down a Baltimore-area factory operated by the pharmaceutical company’s subcontractor Emergent BioSolutions over significant production errors, The Times reported. Failures at the facility previously ruined 75 million doses, but the newly cleared batch could boost the number of doses made there and increase availability for U.S. distribution to about 40 million.

The FDA did not disclose the number of doses cleared, according to The Times. However, the outlet cited multiple people familiar with Emergent’s operations as saying the batch could supply as many as 15 million doses.

“But with new coronavirus cases dropping and the country awash in vaccines from two other authorized manufacturers, most new Johnson & Johnson doses produced in the United States are likely destined for export,” The Times wrote.

The news comes as Johnson & Johnson last Thursday reported that early results of unpublished studies show its vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, even 8 months after inoculation, The Times reported.

Hospitals Hike Prices for Uninsured Patients

For uninsured patients who must pay out-of-pocket for healthcare services, many hospitals charge higher prices compared with those they’ve negotiated with insurers, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported, citing its own study of thousands of prices at hundreds of facilities.

Hospitals are known to charge different customers different prices for the same service, WSJ reported. Those rates used to be confidential. But that changed this year on January 1 with a new federal rule requiring hospitals to make prices public.

“The newly public prices allow for the first time a comparison of what deep-pocketed insurers pay hospitals versus rates that hospitals set for patients who pay cash,” WSJ wrote. “Time and time again, the Journal’s analysis revealed, cash payers are charged among the highest prices.”

Such was the case for Raul Macias, who was rushed to an emergency room late last year with shooting pain from his back to his legs, WSJ reported. Doctors at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen, South Dakota, found a tear in the lining of his largest artery, and moved him to Avera Health’s heart hospital for 3 days.

Avera billed uninsured Macias “some of the highest prices the hospitals charge to any payer,” WSJ reported, citing its analysis of Avera’s previously confidential price data.

The hospital bills for Macias came in just shy of $60,000, WSJ reported. He told the outlet he now regularly hears from Avera’s debt collectors.

WSJ noted that patients typically pay cash prices because they’re uninsured or because some services aren’t covered by their health plans. “Hospitals generally offer financial aid, but policies vary widely and can be poorly promoted, leaving many uninsured, who are often also low-income, to struggle with unmanageable bills,” the outlet wrote.

  • Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.

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