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Health Highlights, Nov. 5, 2020

healthcare news

Below are newsworthy items compiled by the HealthDay staff:

$26 Billion Settlement Offer in Opioid Lawsuits Gains Wide Support

Three major drug distributors and a large drug manufacturer are nearing a $26 billion deal with state and local governments to end thousands of lawsuits over their role in the opioid epidemic, the New York Times reported Thursday.

The deal is $4 billion more than one suggested a year ago, which was nixed by many states and cities. A major difference in the new offer is $2 billion to pay private lawyers who represent cities, counties and some states.If finalized, four nationwide firms -- McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Johnson & Johnson --would be free from new opioid lawsuits by these governments, the Times said.

Other drugmakers and national pharmacy chains are still facing thousands of lawsuits.

Most settlement money is intended to help pay for treatment and prevention programs in communities devastated by addiction and overdoses. Between 1999 and 2018, 232,000 Americans died from overdoses of prescription opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Addiction to these painkillers led to an epidemic of abuse of opioids like heroin, contributing to a landslide of deaths, crime and mounting health care costs.

"The deal gets money to all of the communities in the United States that are suffering from insult upon injury, first from the opioid epidemic and now with COVID as well, " Paul Hanly, Jr. a lawyer who represents numerous small governments, told the Times.

According to the general outline of the plan, distributors will pay about $21 billion over 18 years, with McKesson alone paying $8 billion.The deal still has to be approved by the governments involved in the suits, the Times reported.

AstraZeneca Hopes to Have COVID Vaccine Ready by Year's End

The drug giant AstraZeneca is hoping to have its COVID-19 vaccine ready by the end of the year and is already beginning manufacturing so it can supply hundreds of millions of doses in January, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

"We have aligned the timing of delivery of vials to the timing of the clinical trial readout," company chief executive Pascal Soriot told analysts on a conference call. "On a global basis, we'll be ready to supply hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine around the world by January."

AstraZeneca and its vaccine development partner Oxford University have said they would provide the vaccine at cost during the pandemic. AstraZeneca will supply the vaccine to developing countries at cost after the pandemic ends, while wealthy countries will pay a "relatively low cost," Ruud Dobber, president of the company's U.S. unit, told the AP.

"We are extremely committed to make sure that not only the rich countries but also, once again, the low- and middle-income countries, can afford to have this vaccine in order to protect their people," Dobber said. The development of the vaccine had been delayed because cases of the virus dropped earlier this year, which slowed human trials, Soriot explained.

To ensure the vaccine has the longest possible shelf-life, AstraZeneca isn't producing injectable vials of the vaccine yet. Rather, it's building frozen stockpiles of the vaccine's active component that can quickly be turned into the injectable vaccine after the vaccine is approved, the AP reported.

"What we have done is we have aligned the timing of delivery of vials to the timing of the clinical trial readout," Soriot explained. "As soon as you turn this vaccine into vials, the shelf life starts ticking."

Oregon Decriminalizes Possession of Hard Drugs

Oregon voters have passed a measure making the state the first to decriminalize possession of hard drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, LSD and oxycodone.

The measure completely changes how Oregon's justice system treats those who are found with personal-use amounts of hard drugs, the Associated Press reported.

Under Measure 110, they won't face criminal charges. Instead, they can choose to pay a $100 fine or go to an addiction recovery center, the AP reported.

The measure takes effect in early December, but the changes in penalties won't be implemented until Feb. 1. The addiction recovery centers will be funded by tax revenue from the state's legalized marijuana industry.

Making criminals out of drug users -- locking them up and burdening them with criminal records that make it hard to find employment and housing -- was not working, experts said.

About 3,700 fewer Oregonians per year will be convicted of felony or misdemeanor possession of controlled substances under the new measure, according to estimates by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

The measure will also likely lead to significant reductions in racial and ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests, the commission added.

"This is such a big step in moving to a health-based approach instead of criminal punishment, and we're devoting significant new resources to help Oregonians who need it," Janie Gullickson, co-chief petitioner of Measure 110, told the AP.

The measure has been approved by 59% of roughly 2 million votes counted so far, according to the Oregon secretary of state's office.

In 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession, the AP reported.

More States Vote to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona and New Jersey, and both recreational and medical use in South Dakota, are on their way to voter approval, CNN projected Wednesday.

The initiatives are only the first step in the process, John Hudak, deputy director at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in state and federal marijuana policy, told CNN.

After voters approve the measures, the state legislatures usually will need to set up regulations in each state. Right now, 11 states have fully legalized marijuana, CNN noted.

In New Jersey, medical use already is legal. The effort to defeat the latest measure was stalled because of the pandemic, according to Gregg Edwards, executive director of Don't Let NJ Go to Pot, CNN reported.

"Now cannabis is going to appear in the New Jersey Constitution alongside the freedom to associate," he told CNN. "And once it's in the Constitution, the likelihood of it coming out is slim or next to none."

In South Dakota, two measures were on the ballot -- one for medical marijuana and the other for recreational use -- according to CNN.

Arizona's law will allow adults aged 21 and older to possess, consume or transfer up to 1 ounce of cannabis and create a regulatory system for the drug's cultivation and sale. A similar provision failed in 2016, CNN reported.

Despite these victories, advocates of legal marijuana say the battle isn't over.

Matthew Schweich, of the Marijuana Policy Project, hopes these wins will be a tipping point.

"The reason there's a conversation in Congress is because of all of the victories that have already occurred at the state level," Schweich told CNN.

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