Pence, Harris turn debate into one big health care dodge

With Carmen Paun Editor’s Note: POLITICO Pulse is a free version of POLITICO Pro Health…

Pence, Harris turn debate into one big health care dodge

With Carmen Paun

Editor’s Note: POLITICO Pulse is a free version of POLITICO Pro Health Care’s morning newsletter, which is delivered to our subscribers each morning at 6 a.m. The POLITICO Pro platform combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.

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— Mike Pence and Kamala Harris spent much of the sole vice presidential debate sidestepping questions on several critical health care issues.

— President Donald Trump is promoting one of his coronavirus treatments as a “cure” and vowing to speed its authorization for emergency use.

— The New England Journal of Medicine is calling for Trump’s ouster in November, in a scathing editorial decrying his pandemic response efforts.

WELCOME TO THURSDAY PULSE — if you were Kamala Harris, would you have said something about the fly?

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PENCE, HARRIS TURN DEBATE INTO ONE BIG HEALTH CARE DODGE — The first crucial health care question came just minutes into Wednesday’s debate, directed toward Vice President Mike Pence: Why is the U.S. death toll from Covid-19 as a percentage of the population higher than nearly every other nation on Earth?

Over the next two minutes — uninterrupted — Pence offered a lot of words, but at no point did he ever approach a direct answer.

A little later, another crucial question, this time to Sen. Kamala Harris: Has she had a conversation with Joe Biden about a transfer-of-power scenario, given he’d be the oldest person ever elected president? And just like Pence, Harris spent two minutes making a range of points — none of which came close to addressing the prompt.

So it went for much of the hour and a half, with USA Today moderator Susan Page posing several well-crafted questions, only to have the vice presidential candidates pivot to whatever they’d rather talk about, and then move on to the next topic.

— A brief list of the burning questions left unaddressed: How Pence expects Americans to follow Covid-19 safety guidelines when the White House does not, what specifically a Biden administration would do differently to combat the pandemic, whether either candidate has talked with their running mate about presidential disability, if Pence believes Americans deserve to know about a president’s health, how to respond if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and what exactly is the Trump administration’s health care plan.

By PULSE’s unofficial count, of the 10 distinct health care questions asked during the debate, Pence and Harris collectively failed to directly answer nine of them.

— That leaves the public largely where it started. Harris focused her energy on attacking Trump and Pence over their Covid-19 response, declaring it a failure and arguing the administration had “forfeited their right to re-election based on this” — but offered few specifics on what a Biden presidency would do differently.

And on abortion, Harris wouldn’t say what her home state of California should do if Roe v. Wade is overturned, retreating instead to time-tested warnings that a conservative Supreme Court majority could soon eliminate Obamacare.

Pence — debating while flanked by plexiglass days after the White House became a super spreader site — sought to paint a rosy picture of the administration’s effort but struggled to maneuver around the fact that 210,000 Americans are dead from the disease.

Later, he claimed that Trump had a health care plan that would protect people with pre-existing conditions. But when pressed to describe it, he ignored the question completely.

— The upshot is that the debate likely swayed few votes. Harris and Pence provided the more civilized, traditional debate that we certainly did not get during Trump and Biden’s first showdown just over a week ago. But they also did their best to stay well within the policy parameters established by their respective campaigns, seemingly determined to leave the fireworks to their running mates at the top of the ticket.

TRUMP LATCHES ON TO A NEW COVID ‘CURE’ — Just days after returning from the hospital and still sick with Covid-19, the president declared an experimental drug he’d been given a “cure” and promised to make it free for all Americans, POLITICO’s Lauren Morello reports.

The vow — part of a five-minute video released on Wednesday — represented Trump’s latest effort to prove he’s stronger than ever despite his recent hospitalization. It also served as a sort of infomercial for Regeneron, the company that makes the experimental antibody cocktail he received.

“It was unbelievable,” Trump said of the drug, later calling his infection “a blessing from god.”

— Trump vowed to authorize emergency use of Regeneron’s treatment, in the latest example of the president getting involved in the regulatory business of his FDA. The company applied for an EUA in recent days, with Eli Lilly also seeking authorization for a similar treatment.

While both have shown promise, they’re far from a cure — the companies have said their antibodies appear to speed recovery, but it’s unclear whether they reduce the risk of death.

— There’s also a personal Trump connection. Regeneron’s CEO is a member of Trump’s golf club in Westchester, N.Y.

NEJM’s SHOCK EDITORIAL: VOTE TRUMP OUT — The prestigious medical journal’s editors are calling for Americans to vote the Trump administration out of office, in an unprecedented editorial that declares the coronavirus response a failure of “astonishing” magnitude.

“When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent,” the New England Journal of Medicine’s editors wrote. “We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”

— The editorial stops short of endorsing a candidate. But it offers an extensive condemnation of the U.S.’s efforts to beat back the pandemic, hammering the administration for ignoring public health recommendations and abandoning its leadership role.

It also warns that the past several months have done significant damage to the credibility of the nation’s public health agencies, undercutting trust in favor of relying on “uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.”

— NEJM is just the latest scientific publication to weigh in on the election. Scientific American last month endorsed Joe Biden, the first time it has backed a candidate in its 175-year history.

REPUBLICANS REVOLT OVER COVID AID HALT — Frustrated GOP lawmakers are urging Trump to restart talks on a coronavirus relief package over worries about the economic and political consequence of failing to strike a deal, POLITICO’s Melanie Zanona reports.

The president’s abrupt termination of negoiations with House Democratic leaders came as airlines prepared massive layoffs and the Federal Reserve chair warned of another big blow to the economy. It was, in the words of vulnerable Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a “huge mistake.”

— Republicans had hoped the Supreme Court nomination would provide a political tailwind. But Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and his haphazard approach to the relief talks have helped keep the pandemic front and center, prompting worries within the GOP that he’s weakened their electoral case and given Democrats fresh political cover.

FDA HALTS COVID TEST REVIEWS — The agency will no longer review emergency use applications for lab-developed coronavirus tests, so it can focus on diagnostics with a better shot at boosting the nation’s testing capacity and accessibility, POLITICO’s David Lim reports.

The move comes after HHS stripped the FDA of its authority to require such pre-market review — a contentious decision that the agency vehemently opposed. HHS at the time said that labs would still be able to seek EUAs if they so chose.

But instead, the FDA is shifting its attention to other diagnostics like point-of-care and home collection tests that have a better shot at improving testing availability.

— House Democrats heaped blame on HHS for the decision. Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone and subcommittee chairs Anna Eshoo and Diana DeGette criticized the department for choosing a “reckless path” by eliminating pre-market review of the tests during a pandemic.

TRUMP-BACKED MASK STERILIZATION COMPANY HIT WITH WARNING LETTERThe FDA raised official concerns about the developer of an N95 mask decontamination system touted by Trump, over its lack of a process for users to report adverse events, David reports.

The warning letter to Battelle Memorial Institute is the first for any product that’s received an emergency use authorization during the pandemic. It comes after the FDA first sought details on Battelle’s reporting system in August, and later determined it didn’t have an adequate process of “timely and effective identification, communication and evaluation of events.”

— Trump campaigned in March for broad use of Battelle’s decontamination system. The company received an initial EUA to decontaminate certain N95 masks for health care workers. But after Trump intervened, the FDA reissued a broader authorization.

PANDEMIC CAN LEAD TO MORE STILLBIRTHS, MAKING A BAD SITUATION WORSE — Almost 200,000 babies could be born dead over the next year if there’s a 50 percent reduction in health services for pregnant women due to the pandemic, warns a new report by UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Bank Group and the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That would increase the number of stillbirths more than 11 percent, the organizations said.

Almost 2 million babies are born without any vital signs every year. Last year, three in four stillbirths happened in sub-Saharan Africa or Southern Asia. The report defines a stillbirth as a baby born with no signs of life at 28 weeks of pregnancy or more. Most stillbirths are due to poor quality of care during pregnancy and birth, according to the organizations, which identify lack of investments in prenatal and birthing services and in the nursing and midwifery workforce as key challenges.

The White House’s coronavirus outbreak has infected at least 34 staffers and other contacts, according to a memo obtained by ABC News’ Josh Margolin and Lucien Bruggeman.

New polling from the Pew Research Center found a steep decline in Republicans’ attention to the pandemic prior to Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

On her podcast Sway, Kara Swisher interviews Operation Warp Speed chief Moncef Slaoui about his role in guiding the Covid-19 vaccine race.