Morning Rounds Elizabeth Cooney

Coming up Thursday, Feb. 25: The pandemic's toll on mental health, a STAT digital event about the lasting impact of the pandemic on our mental health and how we can work to create a better system of care beyond the pandemic. Register here.

A big day for Covid-19 on Capitol Hill

Five vaccine makers face a grilling this morning from a House oversight committee that wants to know why the Covid-19 vaccine rollout has been so rocky. Currently just 75 million vaccine doses have been delivered — despite Operation Warp Speed’s promise of 300 million doses by January. On the hot seat are leaders from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax. Bottlenecks, dose sparing, and booster shots may be on the agenda.

Also today, President Biden’s nominee to lead HHS will have the first of two days in Senate committees' spotlights. Covid will be top of mind, but Xavier Becerra may also run into questions on his aggressive hospital system antitrust work as California's attorney general and his stance on prescription drug affordability, which he championed in Congress.

Pfizer plays hardball in Covid-19 vaccine negotiations with Latin American countries

Pfizer has been accused of bullying Latin American governments during negotiations to acquire its Covid-19 vaccine, asking some countries to put up embassy buildings and military bases as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has learned. In what sounds like “vaccine apartheid,” in which rich Western countries may be inoculated years before lower-income regions, demands made by the pharmaceutical giant in one Latin American nation led to a three-month delay in a vaccine deal. For Argentina and Brazil, no national deals were made. In the Bureau’s story for STAT, legal experts raise concerns that Pfizer’s demands are an abuse of power. Pfizer declined to comment on the allegations.

Remember the common cold? Get ready

A curious thing happened when Hong Kong reopened schools after closing them because of the Covid-19 pandemic — and it bears watching here. When children returned to schools in October, large numbers of kids were getting sick, despite mandatory mask-wearing, additional spacing between desks, and other measures to lower the risk of spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. But the vast majority of children weren’t infected with the virus. They were infected with rhinoviruses — one of the most common causes of the common cold. Researchers believe the surge in illness was no accident — but rather a consequence of children congregating after so many months of social distancing, which left then more susceptible to respiratory viruses. STAT's Helen Branswell has more.

Inside STAT: As digital pharmacy grows more crowded, startups scramble to stand out

Ever since Amazon launched its digital pharmacy last year, industry rivals have worried the tech giant would steal the show. Now they’re all scrambling to secure their spot on the stage. Some, like Nurx and Folx, are zeroing in on underserved or specific populations, hoping to build a loyal, lifetime patient pool. Others, such as Hims, Ro, and GoodRx, are going broad: adding new telemedicine services, offering steep discounts and subscription perks, and in some cases, pitching themselves as a trustworthy, more bespoke alternative to Amazon. “I think if any of these prescription medication platforms doesn’t partner with a telehealth provider in the next five years, they won’t remain competitive,” PitchBook's Kaia Colban tells STAT’s Erin Brodwin.

School closures are a blunt instrument to control Covid, study says

There are better ways to prevent the spread of Covid-19 than closing schools, a new study concludes. Changes in voluntary behavior, such as working from home, not dining inside restaurants, and not gathering in groups, had more impact on cases and deaths last spring than keeping kids out of the classroom, according to an analysis based on deidentified cellphone data and restaurant reservations. The authors say people were already adopting social-distancing measures that slowed the spread of disease before official policies such as shuttering restaurants or schools took hold. Case declines were fewer after schools closed than after drops in restaurant dining or going to work. “School closures did not play the only or even most important role in slowing the spread of the disease,” the authors write.

Gender matters: Women treated by female physicians have better outcomes

A new review of eight studies has found that women do better when they are treated by a female physician. It’s not just that male and female patients both have better outcomes when their doctors are women, perhaps because, on average, female physicians spend more time with their patients. It’s also that female heart attack patients were more likely to die if treated by male doctors. And female patients with diabetes were less likely than male patients to receive intense treatment with a male primary care provider. The authors cite three reasons: differences in how heart disease presents in women vs. men, the underrepresentation of women in clinical trials, and the lack of women's health training in U.S. medical education.

Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

Cases yesterday: 56,044
Deaths yesterday
: 1,413

What to read around the web today

  • With chronic migraines, she avoided light for 18 months — and developed a condition from centuries past. STAT
  • FDA looks to quickly authorize Covid-19 vaccine booster shots as new variants emerge. Wall Street Journal
  • In a virus-ravaged city, nearly 400 million vaccine doses are being made — and shipped elsewhere. Washington Post
  • Fauci admits U.S. Covid response has been 'worse than most any other country.' Vanity Fair
  • We're just rediscovering a 19th-century pandemic strategy. The Atlantic

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,

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