Industry lobbyists, representing everyone from pesticide manufacturers to factory farms and aquarium and zoo operators, are pushing regulators to allow their workers to jump the line for the coronavirus vaccine.
A coronavirus vaccine, one of which could be cleared for use as early as today, is set to be distributed first to those in health care facilities, essential workers, and individuals most vulnerable to the virus. This has set off an influence blitz as various industry groups petition the government for inclusion on the list of professions most crucial to keeping the country running.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, through a panel known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, has established a framework for individuals to receive the first available doses of approved Covid-19 vaccines. The framework is nonbinding but expected to shape state agencies and other institutions that will govern distribution of the vaccines.
The first to receive the vaccine, through a process the ACIP has called Phase 1a, will likely be health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, who have been hit especially hard by the virus. The second deployment, Phase 1b, will include essential workers. The following group, Phase 1c, includes adults with high-risk medical conditions and senior citizens over the age of 65.
The category of essential work has been the focus of furious lobbying this year as various businesses and professional groups have pressed to be certified as essential in order to stay open. Each state has its own guidelines for who is considered essential, but the CDC provides broad guidance. Many industry groups have asked the CDC to rely on a memo from the Department of Homeland Security on critical infrastructure workers, a document published in August, to determine whether a worker is deemed essential for vaccination — a list that was itself the focus of intense lobbying.
Earlier this year, dozens of industry associations lobbied Homeland Security to be on the critical infrastructure list, including gun manufacturers, coal mines, stock exchanges, and the Fragrance Creators Association, the trade group for the makers of perfumes, colognes, and scented candles. The DHS memo, notably, includes the production of “fragrances” as essential work.
Homeland Security claimed the categories were determined to be “so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”
The vaccine’s rollout has only intensified the campaign to shape the list of what type of workers are counted as critical to the economy. Now truck drivers, bus drivers, Uber drivers, the restaurant industry, grocery stores, school nurses, and other associations have similarly petitioned the CDC, arguing that their members should count as essential workers. Earlier this week, MarketWatch reported that the American Bankers Association asked that bank tellers, given their close contact with the public, should be given priority for receiving the vaccine.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, in a letter sent to the CDC last week, voiced “strong support for inclusion of animal care workers in your phase 1(b) priority recommendation for essential workers.” Dan Ashe, the president of the group, noted that the Georgia Aquarium alone cares for 100,000 animals.
The Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a lobby group for pharmaceutical firms such as Mallinckrodt and Bayer, argued in its petition to the CDC that drug manufacturers and lab researchers “cannot work from home” and should be included as essential workers. Pharmaceutical workers, BIO noted, are crucial for innovation “within the human health, food and agriculture, and industrial and environmental sectors.” Though many BIO member corporations include vaccine and immunotherapy developers, the group represents firms that sell opioid painkillers and other medical treatments unrelated to the present crisis.
CropLife America, which lobbies for pesticide manufacturers, wrote to the CDC to urge regulators to consider that those “who develop and package the seed, chemicals and fertilizers that farmers need for their crop” should be counted as workers critical for the nation’s food supply.
Journalists have also lobbied for prioritization. The National Press Photographers Association asked that journalists who have direct contact with the public be expressly included as essential workers. “While others have the option to walk away from large crowds, or to avoid members of the public that don’t follow CDC health guidelines, visual journalist [sic] repeatedly put their own safety at risk to document what is occurring and inform their communities, large and small,” the NPPA argued in its letter.
Other industries that have faced criticism for failing to protect the health and well-being of its workers are now petitioning the CDC for priority for the vaccine. Tyson Foods and Smithfield, two of the largest slaughterhouse companies in the country, are facing numerous lawsuits over allegations that the companies failed to provide protective equipment, coerced sick workers to come into work, and ignored early warning signs that the disease was rapidly spreading within its plants.
The North American Meat Institute, a lobby group for Tyson and Smithfield, ghostwrote the executive order signed by President Donald Trump that compelled slaughterhouse employees to continue working through the first weeks of the pandemic, overriding health and safety concerns.
Now, in a letter last week to the CDC, the same group is petitioning regulators to prioritize “meat and poultry workers.” The NAMI letter casts vaccine priority not only as crucial for maintaining the nation’s food supply, but also an altruistic endeavor, vital for mitigating “health inequalities given much of the workforce is comprised of minorities, immigrants, or those with lower socioeconomic status.”
Recent financial disclosures show another potential motive. Tyson Foods has increased revenues by 5.3 percent in the last quarter, in a year that the company has pushed exports of meat products, particularly to markets in China. During the company’s earnings report last month, an analyst from JPMorgan Chase raised the issue that the main risk to future profits would be “labor shortages in the next couple of months, not just because of actual illness, but also because of workers maybe afraid of getting a little sick.”