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Lobbying battle brewing over access to COVID-19 vaccine

Lobbying battle brewing over access to COVID-19 vaccine
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The race for a COVID-19 vaccine is setting off a different kind of competition in Washington: Who will get it first? 

Food suppliers argue their workers should be near the front of the line. Fifteen trade groups recently made their pitch to President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE, citing his declaration that the food and agriculture sector is a critical component of the nation's infrastructure.

Trump administration officials have signaled they will take a “tiered approach” to giving out the vaccine when it is ready and said that, depending on the results of clinical trials, high-risk individuals, people with pre-existing health conditions, and front-line health care workers will be prioritized.

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After those groups, it’s anyone’s guess.

“Will it be people at highest risk? Will it be people who are key to spreading and transmission? Will it be politically effective lobby groups? Will it be people who can pay the most for it?” said Barry Bloom, a research professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The nation’s food industry thinks it has a strong case to make.

Meat processing plants quickly became hotspots for the coronavirus, prompting several to temporarily close during the pandemic.

Trump later signed an executive order to compel meatpacking plants to stay open.

As of Thursday, nearly 31,000 meatpacking workers tested positive for coronavirus and over 3,300 food processing workers and 3,600 farmworkers, according to data from the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

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The North American Meat Institute, which represents meat processing companies, was among the 15 groups that sent a letter to Trump requesting priority access to a vaccine.

Other groups on the letter included the American Frozen Food institute, the National Milk Producers Federation and the United Fresh Produce Association.

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Overnight Health Care: Biden team to begin getting COVID briefings | Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on Biden's COVID task force | Major glove factories close after thousands test positive for COVID-19 Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on a Biden coronavirus task force MORE, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said he is optimistic a coronavirus vaccine will be available by the beginning of next year. That leaves about six months for the federal government to determine its distribution plan.

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDemocratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition DOJ investigation into Epstein deal ends without recommended action The Hill's 12:30 Report: What to know about the Pfizer vaccine announcement MORE (Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said Trump needs to make that plan public now.

“The Trump Administration needs to follow the science and address how to prioritize distribution now as part of a larger comprehensive, national vaccine plan—and the cornerstone of that plan has to be public health and protecting vulnerable communities. We need to listen to the public health experts here, not the politicians, big corporations, or their lobbyists,” she told The Hill in a statement.

Bruce Gellin, former director of the National Vaccine Program, an office in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said it’s not too early to start discussing distribution plans.

“It’s too hard to predict when a vaccine will be available but it’s not too early to start talking about the vaccination program because you don’t want to have the vaccination ready and then announce a plan that nobody has seen,” said Gellin, who is now president of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.

Some trade groups say now is not the time to jockey for position.

“Our shared goal is to assure vaccination availability for every American and it would be premature to comment on specific distribution prioritization at this stage,” said Robyn Boerstling, vice president of infrastructure, innovation and human resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry that has had essential employees working during the coronavirus shutdowns. 

The National Restaurant Association, another group that signed onto the letter to Trump, argues that their workers should be considered just as vital as agriculture workers and others in the supply chain because the sector is interconnected.

“We need to take every step to ensure that restaurants remain a stable part of the food supply chain for America,” Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs, told The Hill. “We need to ensure that we have full safety from the farmer in the field to the server in the restaurant.”

The groups in the letter also pushed for the federal government, and not states, to coordinate vaccine distribution.

“Leaving vaccine distribution to the states will result in an inconsistent, inefficient process,” they wrote.

A senior administration official told The Hill that HHS is working on responding to the many letters it receives on this issue.

“It is our solemn obligation at HHS to provide a safe, effective and affordable vaccine to every American, including those on the front lines, as fast as possible,” the official said. “Any vulnerable American who needs the vaccine will receive the vaccine regardless of their ability to afford it. We have received letters from a number of groups during this pandemic, and the Department is working to respond.”

Gellin agreed that the guidance has to come from the federal level for distribution.

“I think the fairest approach would be to distribute a vaccine on a population basis to states and...states follow the federal guidance. Of course not all states are the same and they will likely make some adjustments to the federal guidance. What doesn’t make sense is for each state to figure out their own priority scheme,” Gellin told The Hill.

As more vaccine candidates move ahead with trials, there’s more pressure on the government to offer guidance on how things will look a few months from now.

Bloom stressed that decisions about allocating a vaccine must be transparent.

“Since the vaccine will not be ready instantaneously to 342 million Americans, we need to have a public discussion of the policy for its distribution, who should make the policy, and given the inevitable opposition of anti-vaccine activists, how do we assure a public consensus that it will be available in a fair and transparent way,” he said.