Pass urgent COVID funding or more will die, White House says

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addresses a news conference at the White House in Washington on Monday, April 25, 2022. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — For much of the past two years, America has been at the forefront for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Now, as drugmakers develop the next generation of therapies, the White House is warning the US will have to take a number unless Congress acts urgently.

Already the Congressional standoff on virus funding has forced the federal government to limit free treatment for the uninsured and ration monoclonal antibody supplies. And Biden administration officials are raising concerns that the US is also missing out on important opportunities to secure booster doses and new antiviral pills that could help the country maintain its resurgent sense of normality, even in the face of potential new variants and spikes in cases.

Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong have all placed orders for treatments and vaccine doses that the US cannot yet commit to, according to the White House.

Months ago, the White House began warning that the country had spent the money on America’s $1.9 trillion bailout plan dedicated directly to responding to COVID-19. It requested an additional $22.5 billion for what it described as “urgent” needs in the US and abroad.

The Senate finalized a smaller $10 billion package last month focused on domestic needs. But even that deal fell through when lawmakers objected to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it would end Trump-era border restrictions related to the pandemic.

The White House is lobbying this week to encourage doctors to be less stingy in prescribing the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which was originally rationed for those most at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 but is now more widely available. An order for 20 million doses placed by the government last year helped boost production capacity.

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Paxlovid, when given within five days of symptom onset, has been shown to result in a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths in patients most likely to develop serious illness. About 314 Americans are now dying each day from the coronavirus, up from more than 2,600 during the peak of the Omicron wave earlier this year.

The US used similar pre-purchase agreements to boost domestic supplies and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines through what was known in the Trump administration as “Operation Warp Speed.”

Now, with a new generation of treatments on the horizon, the US is falling behind.

Japan has already placed an initial order for drugmaker Shionogi’s upcoming COVID-19 antiviral pill, which studies have shown to be at least as effective as Pfizer’s treatment, with fewer drug-drug interactions and easier to administer.

Because of the funding delays, officials say, the US has yet to place a pre-order, which would help the company scale production to make the pill at scale.

“We know that companies are working on additional, promising life-saving treatments that could protect the American people, and without additional funding from Congress, we risk losing access to these treatments, as well as testing and vaccines, while other countries edge ahead.” We have in line,” said White House spokesman Kevin Munoz. “Congress must act urgently upon returning from hiatus to provide the funding needed to secure new treatments for the American people and avoid this dangerous outcome.”

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Complicating matters further are the long lead times to manufacture the antiviral and antibody treatments. Paxlovid takes about six months to manufacture, and monoclonal antibody treatments to treat COVID-19 and prevent serious illness in immunocompromised individuals are taking a similar length of time, meaning the U.S. is running out of time to restore supplies before the end of the year to fill up.

Last month, the White House began cutting shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments to states to extend lifespans.

Administration officials declined to discuss specific treatments that contract requirements prevent them from ordering.

The funding debate is also halting U.S. purchases of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses, including an upcoming new generation of vaccines that may offer better protection against the Omicron variant.

Moderna and Pfizer are both testing what scientists are calling “bivalent” vaccines — a hybrid of both companies’ original vaccine and an Omicron-targeted version — with Moderna announcing last week that it hopes to have its version ready this fall.

The Biden administration has said that while the US has enough vaccine doses for children under 5 once they’re approved by regulators and fourth shots for high-risk people over 50, it doesn’t have the money to buy the new generation of cans to order.

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Earlier this month, former White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong have already secured future booster doses.

Republicans have shown no sign of backing down from their request that the chamber, before delivering the 10 GOP votes needed for the Senate to pass the COVID-19 funding package, on its efforts to extend the Trump-era Title 42 ordinance must vote. This COVID-related order, which obliges authorities to immediately expel almost all migrants at the border, is set to be lifted on May 23.

An election-year vote to extend that order would be dangerous for Democrats, and many hope such a vote doesn’t happen. Many privately say they hope Biden will keep immigration restrictions in place or that a court will delay lifting the rules, but Republicans could still force a vote.

“Congress would have to take action to prevent the day from becoming May 23,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said earlier this month he expects legislation this spring that would pool funds for COVID-19 and Ukraine. Aid to Ukraine has broad bipartisan support and could help push such a package through Congress, but Republican opposition has already forced lawmakers to once cut anti-pandemic funding.

There are at least six Democrats, and possibly 10 or more, expected to support the Republican amendment to extend the immigration ordinance, enough to warrant its passage.

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Such a vote would be dangerous for Democrats from swing districts, who need to appeal to core pro-immigrant Democratic voters without alienating moderates who are suspicious of the surge in migrants who expect the curbs to be lifted will trigger.

Republicans have not said what language they would adopt, but they may turn to a bipartisan bill by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

It would delay any suspension of immigration restrictions until at least 60 days after the US Surgeon General declares the pandemic emergency over. The administration would also need to propose a plan for dealing with the expected increase in migrants crossing the border. Democrats, who have expressed support for keeping immigration restrictions in place, have cited the government’s lack of planning as their top concern, though the Biden administration has insisted it prepares for an increase in border crossings.

AP writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.


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