U.S. plans to stop buying Covid shots in the fall. What that means
A pharmacist delivers a COVID-19 booster dose at a Chicago CVS store in October.
Antonio Perez | Tribune News Service | Getty Images
The U.S. will stop buying Covid shots at reduced price for the entire country and shift vaccine distribution to the private market as soon as early fall, shifting the cost to U.S. insurers and uninsured Americans who stand to lose access to the free vaccines.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Covid response coordinator, said in an an interview with UCSF Department of Medicine on Thursday that the shift to a private market will happen over the summer or early fall, though no exact date has been set.
A senior official with the Health and Human Services Department told CNBC the fall would be a natural time to transition to a private market, particularly if the Food and Drug Administration selects a new Covid strain for the vaccines and asks the manufacturers to produce updated shots ahead of the respiratory virus season.
For the past two years, the U.S. has bought the vaccines directly from Pfizer and Moderna at an average price of about $21 per dose, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The federal government has required pharmacies, doctor’s offices and hospitals to provide these shots for free to everyone regardless of their insurance status.
If you have health insurance
When the federal Covid vaccination program ends, the shots will remain free for people who have health insurance due to requirements under the Affordable Care Act.
But uninsured adults may have to pay for their immunizations when Pfizer and Moderna start selling the shots on the private market and the current federal stockpile runs out. There is a federal program to provide free vaccines to children whose families or caretakers can’t afford the shots.
Jha said on Tuesday the planned switch is not tied to the end of the Covid public health emergency in May.
“The end of the PHE does NOT mean people will suddenly not be able to get the vaccines and treatments they need,” Jha wrote in a Twitter thread on Tuesday.
When the federal government no longer buys vaccines at a discount for the entire nation, individual health-care providers will purchase the shots from the vaccine makers at a higher price.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told CNBC last month that the company is preparing to sell the vaccines on the private market as early as this fall. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told investors during the company’s earnings call this week that he is preparing for the vaccines to go commercial in the second half of the year.
Pfizer and Moderna have said they are considering hiking the price of the vaccines to somewhere around $110 to $130 per dose once the U.S. government pulls out of the vaccine program.
If you’re uninsured
“If you’re uninsured, then you might be faced with the full cost,” said Cynthia Cox, an expert on the Affordable Care Act at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But the U.S. still has a substantial stockpile of free vaccines left. The Biden administration ordered 171 million omicron boosters last year. About 51 million boosters have been administered so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The uninsured will continue to have access to these 120 million doses for free, but it’s unclear how long the supply will last.
“With the supply we have of vaccines and antivirals, we don’t think we’re going to be in a state of precipitous transition to drop this on market partners,” the HHS official said.
Although the vaccine makers are preparing to sell shots on the private market later this year, it’s possible that the federal stockpile of free shots could last longer than that because booster uptake has been low, Cox said.
“Everyone in the U.S. regardless of their citizenship status or their insurance status is able to get a free vaccine as long as this federal stockpile lasts,” Cox said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., slammed the vaccine price hike in a letter to Moderna’s CEO last month. Sanders, who chairs the Senate health committee, said the price hike would cost taxpayers billions via its impact on Medicaid and Medicare’s budgets.
“Perhaps most significantly, the quadrupling of prices will make the vaccine unavailable for millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans who will not be able to afford it,” Sanders said. “How many of these Americans will die from Covid-19 as a result of limited access to these lifesaving vaccines?”
Jha said this week that the Biden administration is committed to helping the uninsured access Covid shots and treatments.
“We are creating a whole separate set of efforts for the uninsured because the uninsured, of course, will not be able to get vaccines for free and treatments for free under the regular insurance system by definition,” Jha said Thursday. “We are working on a plan on that.”
The HHS official said one tool the federal government plans to use is a program called Section 317 that provides funding to procure and administer shots to uninsured adults at no cost.
But for the overwhelming majority of people with private insurance, the Affordable Care Act will cover the cost of the vaccines. Under the ACA, private health insurance is required to cover all immunizations recommended by the CDC at no cost to the consumer.
Medicare would cover the shots for seniors, who are the most vulnerable to the virus, and lower-income people could get the vaccine through Medicaid.
There may be a small number of legacy private health insurance plans from before the ACA that are not required to cover Covid vaccines, Cox said. The HHS official said most of those plans will likely pay for the shots.
In addition, some short-term insurance policies might not pay for the vaccines, Cox said. These plans were expanded during the Trump administration and aren’t required to comply with the ACA.
The ACA also allows private insurance to limit vaccine coverage to in-network providers, Cox said. People who have grown accustomed to getting vaccinated at any pharmacy during the pandemic might have to go to a specific drugstore in the future to get a free shot, she said.
Consumers could also see their health insurance premiums increase if Pfizer and Moderna hike the price of the shots, Cox said.
Paxlovid may not be free
Some patients, depending on their insurance policy, will also probably have to pay for Pfizer’s antiviral pill Paxlovid in the future. Unlike preventive services such as vaccines, the ACA does not require insurance to cover treatments.
Bourla told market analysts this week that Pfizer expects to start selling Paxlovid through the private market at commercial prices in the second half of 2023.
Pfizer has not announced how much the antiviral will cost once it goes commercial. The federal government is paying about $530 for a five-day treatment course. It’s unclear how much patients will have to pay out of pocket and how much of the price insurance will cover.
Dawn O’Connell, who heads the federal office responsible for the U.S. stockpile, said last August that the Health and Human Services Department expected to run out of Paxlovid by mid-2023.
Jha said on Tuesday that there are still millions of doses of Paxlovid and omicron boosters in the U.S. stockpile. “They will continue to be available for free to all Americans who need them,” Jha said of the remaining federal supply.
Saudi Aramco to buy 10% stake in China oil refinery for $3.6 billion
Bloomberg | | Posted by Shobhit Gupta
Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil producer, has agreed to buy a 10% stake in a giant oil complex in China for 24.6 billion yuan ($3.6 billion), in a deal that will significantly expand its refining presence in China.
Aramco will also supply 480,000 barrels of crude oil per day to Rongsheng Petrochemical Co’s refinery in the eastern province of Zhejiang over a 20-year period, according to a statement from the Chinese company. Aramco will provide a credit of $800 million to Rongsheng for the purchase, that statement said. Aramco Overseas Company, a subsidiary of Aramco, will acquire the shares.
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Rongsheng owns a 51% equity interest in Zhejiang Petroleum and Chemical Co., which in turn owns and operates the largest integrated refining and chemicals complex in China, with a capacity to process 800,000 barrels per day of crude oil and to produce 4.2 million metric tons of ethylene per year.
“This announcement demonstrates Aramco’s long-term commitment to China and belief in the fundamentals of the Chinese petrochemicals sector,” Mohammed Y. Al Qahtani, Aramco Executive Vice President of Downstream, said in a separate statement.
The deal comes a day after Saudi Aramco and its Chinese partners agreed to build a refining and petrochemical complex in China’s northeast, accelerating a development that was paused during the pandemic.
Will RBI increase repo rate in next policy meet? What report says
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is expected to pause their interest rate hike and the current 6.5 per cent repo rate could be the terminal rate for now, said SBI Research in its latest Ecowrap report.
The repo rate is the interest rate at which the RBI lends money to all commercial banks.
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The next monetary policy meeting is scheduled for the first week of April 2023.
At the latest Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the RBI in early February, it decided to raise the repo rate by 25 basis points to 6.5 per cent to keep inflation expectations anchored, break the persistence of core inflation, and strengthen the medium-term growth prospects.
Raising interest rates is a monetary policy instrument that typically helps suppress demand in the economy, thereby helping the inflation rate decline.
In early 2020 when Covid hit the world, the repo rate was 4 per cent.
“The (RBI’s) stance could continue to be withdrawal of accommodation, even as liquidity is now in deficit mode. RBI can always keep the options open in June (monetary) policy,” the SBI Research, authored by Group Chief Economic Adviser State Bank of India Soumya Kanti Ghosh, said.
The report asserted that the RBI has enough reasons to pause the repo rate hike in the April meeting.
“There are concerns of a material slowdown in the affordable housing loan market and financial stability concerns taking centre stage. While concerns on sticky core inflation is justified, it may be noted that average core inflation is at 5.8 per cent over the last decade and it is almost unlikely that core inflation could decline materially to 5.5 per cent and below as post-pandemic shifts in expenditure on health and education and the sticky component of transport inflation with fuel prices staying at elevated levels will act as the constraint. By this logic, RBI may then have to go for more rounds of rate hikes,” it explained in the report.
Notably, retail inflation in India fell marginally but remained above RBI’s 6 per cent upper tolerance band for the second straight month in February 2023, with the Consumer Price Index pegged at 6.44 per cent. In January, the retail inflation was 6.52 per cent.
India’s retail inflation was above RBI’s 6 per cent target for three consecutive quarters and had managed to fall back to the RBI’s comfort zone only in November 2022. Under the flexible inflation targeting framework, the RBI is deemed to have failed in managing price rises if the CPI-based inflation is outside the 2-6 per cent range for three quarters in a row.
On India’s inflation, the Ecowrap report forecast March and April to be 5.5-5.6 per cent and 4.7-4.8 per cent.
“Thus, the RBI will have a delicate balancing job of either looking forward to the June meeting with clear signs of inflation trending downwards or looking backwards at the Jan and Feb prints in April policy. Thus, it will be a delicate choice (for RBI),” the report said.
Not just India, US monetary policy committee too is on an interest hike spree in the fight against inflation.
The US monetary policy committee, seeking to achieve maximum employment and inflation at the rate of 2 per cent over the longer run, hiked the key interest rate by 25 basis points to over a 15-year high of 4.75-5.0 per cent at its latest two-day review meet last week. The latest hike was the same size as its previous rate increase in the February meeting and marked its ninth straight rate hike.
The hike comes amid the dilemma faced by its central bank on inflation targeting and on maintaining banking sector stability – the former is way above target and the latter is shaky after the recent collapse of a couple of banks and the contagion effect on others.
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Meanwhile, consumer inflation in the US moderated in February to 6.0 per cent from 6.4 per cent the previous month, but the numbers are still way above the 2 per cent target. It was at 6.5 per cent in December, and 7.1 per cent the month before.
“Fed rate hikes could be smaller in magnitude, and one last in May policy of 25 bps,” SBI Research said.
“The challenge is now to decouple from Fed. But the good thing is that a dovish Fed means soft dollar and thus lower depreciation risk for the Indian rupee in the short to medium term,” it added.
‘We do responsible hiring’: Flipkart takes stand against mass layoffs
In a statement that will bring massive relief to Flipkart employees amid the ongoing layoffs in companies across the globe, Flipkart’s Chief People Officer (CPO) has said the homegrown e-commerce has ‘no intention of making mass layoffs.’
This is because the organisation does not believe in hiring in bulk as doing so often leads to firms laying off staff to lessen the headcount, said Krishna Raghavan in an interview with HT’s sister publication Mint.
“We do responsible hiring and there are no mass layoffs happening at Flipkart. We don’t hire in thousands and then land up figuring out that we have too many people on board, and resort to extreme measures,” remarked Raghavan.
He added that the Walmart-owned company’s recent decision of not giving salary hike to senior management did not mean there would be job cuts, as hikes and promotions were given last year.
Flipkart’s stand is in complete contrast to that of its prime competitor Amazon, where more than 27,000 employees have already lost jobs since January.
‘No delays in onboarding freshers’
Raghavan further said there were ‘no delays’ in onboarding freshers who, he added, will join in June. “We are very thoughtful and deliberate on how we do workflows planning in general,” stated the Chief People Officer.
Wipro, for example, is yet to onboard last year’s graduates. The IT major major says it has been forced to delay this due to the ‘changing macro environment.’
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