|THIS WEEK IN HEALTHCARE
What happened in healthcare this week—and what we think about it.
Two steps forward, one step back on vaccinations
As states rush to fully reopen businesses, and Americans leave their masks at home in greater numbers, it appears that the feared “fourth surge” of COVID is now underway in many parts of the country. Coronavirus cases are up in half of all states, and up nationally by 9 percent compared to last week. While the latest wave appears to be much less deadly—largely targeting younger people who haven’t yet been vaccinated—it adds urgency to the effort to get shots in arms as quickly as possible. The good news: that’s happening. Today the US surpassed the milestone of 200M vaccinations given, with nearly a quarter of the population now fully vaccinated (including nearly two-thirds of those over age 65). The progress on vaccines comes as the Johnson & Johnson COVID jab is sidelined, over safety concerns stemming from a small number of rare blood-clotting cases in younger women that caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to urge states to pause the use of the shot. Wednesday’s inconclusive meeting of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meant an additional 7 to 10 days of limbo for the J&J vaccine, drawing criticism from experts who warned that the negative publicity could undermine confidence in vaccines among the general population, both in the US and around the world.
Count us among those skeptical of the decision to pull back on the J&J vaccine, which plays a pivotal role in the campaign against COVID, given that it’s a single-dose vaccine that can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures, making it more easily distributed than the two-dose mRNA vaccines. While the blood clotting cases are serious, and merit investigation, the odds of suffering a vaccine-related blood clot are far outweighed by an individual’s risk of death or severe complications from COVID itself, let alone the chances of getting a blood clot from other medications (such as oral contraceptives). It was a big week for innumeracy, unfortunately: headlines abounded about the CDC’s discovery of 5,800 “breakthrough” COVID cases, in which fully vaccinated people still contracted the disease. Unsurprisingly, the numerator got the headlines, not the denominator—the 80M people who’ve been fully vaccinated. Your chances of hitting a hole-in-one as an amateur golfer are better than the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated. Furthermore, of those 5,800 people infected after being fully vaccinated, only 7 percent were hospitalized, and 74 died. Each a tragedy, to be sure—but we’ll take those odds any day. Get vaccinated as soon as you can.
Microsoft announces acquisition of Nuance Communications
Microsoft announced Monday that it plans to acquire speech recognition company Nuance Communications in a $19.7B cash transaction, marking a significant push by the tech giant into the healthcare space. Nuance was an early leader in voice recognition technology, and provided a fundamental component to the development of Apple’s Siri voice assistant. The company gained a strong foothold across healthcare, and its products are used by more than three quarters of hospitals and half of the country’s physicians today. Microsoft plans to integrate Nuance’s artificial intelligence (AI) and speech recognition platforms into its Cloud for Healthcare suite, providing a tested interface layer with the front lines of care delivery. Some industry observers believe that the deal will trigger a looming battle between tech giants for the healthcare space. However, we think Microsoft’s approach is fundamentally different from that of Amazon and other consumer-focused tech companies. Nuance’s portfolio fits with Microsoft’s longstanding focus on business solutions, looking to integrate into provider operations rather than aiming to replace or upend the traditional healthcare business model.
Bright Health adds Zipnosis to its portfolio as it aims to go public
Health insurance start-up Bright Health announced that it has acquired telehealth company Zipnosis, which provides virtual triage and diagnosis solutions to almost 60 health systems nationwide. Zipnosis was an early developer of asynchronous diagnostic tools, which allow patients to be evaluated and treated without directly interacting with a clinician. (Over the years, we’ve largely heard positive reviews from doctors about Zipnosis’ capabilities—when applied to the right clinical conditions.) The deal follows other recent payer acquisitions of virtual care capabilities. Zipnosis, which treated more than 2M patients across 2020, could give Bright the ability to provide telemedicine services directly to its 500K members nationwide, likely in concert with its health system partners. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that Bright plans to go public in 2021. As investors weigh Bright’s future, Zipnosis not only brings attractive technology, but a portfolio of health system relationships that could lay the foundation for future network partnerships for the insurer’s core business.