The White House is planning for a “terrible” emergency that could include rationing supplies of vaccines and treatments this fall if Congress doesn’t approve more funding to fight COVID-19.
In public comments and private meetings on Capitol Hill, White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Ashish Jia painted a dark picture that the United States may be forced to abandon much of the progress it has made even in the fight against the coronavirus over the past two years. The most vulnerable groups may face supply shortages.
Biden administration officials have been warning for weeks that the country has spent nearly all of the $1.9 trillion U.S. rescue package that goes directly to the COVID-19 response.
A small portion of the funding remains, and the government faces a key decision on how to spend it. That means making tough decisions, such as weighing whether to use it to secure the next generation of vaccines to protect at-risk populations, or to prioritize highly effective treatments that can significantly reduce the risk of serious illness and death.
The decision could come next week, according to the administration, as the White House faces a looming deadline to start ordering vaccines and treatments before other countries are ahead of the U.S. in getting supplies.
Jha warns that without more money, vaccines will be harder to come by, testing will again be scarce, while treatments to help the country survive the current surge in omicron-driven cases without a commensurate increase in deaths could be sold overseas in Americans before they can be accessed.
“I think if that happens, we’re going to see a lot of unnecessary loss of life,” Jha said last week. “But we’re looking at all scenarios and planning for all scenarios.”
The administration, he said, “is getting more involved in the business of scenario planning to make sure we know what might be in front of us so we can plan and obviously have that in front of Congress as well.”
Jha, who declined to make specific predictions about the potential loss of life, has become the face of the Biden administration’s efforts to persuade Congress to authorize an additional $22.5 billion for the COVID-19 response.
“The scenario we’re planning is what happens if Congress doesn’t give us money and we don’t have enough vaccines,” Jha said in a May 12 interview with The Associated Press. “We’ve run out of treatments. We There aren’t enough tests. What could things look like? Obviously, it’s a very dire situation.”
Domestic production of home testing has slowed, and workers are starting to be laid off. In the coming weeks, manufacturers will sell equipment and “get out of the business,” leaving the U.S. again dependent on overseas suppliers for rapid testing, Jha said.
Meanwhile, drug manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration are evaluating next-generation vaccines, potentially including vaccines against major omicron strains. But getting them ready ahead of the expected surge in cases in the fall means placing orders now, as they take two to three months to produce.
Jha said this week that the U.S. has not started talks with drugmakers because of a lack of funding.
“We’ve had some very preliminary conversations with manufacturers,” he said. “But talks around it haven’t started, partly because we’re waiting for resources.” He added: “The fact is that other countries are talking to manufacturers and starting to move forward with their negotiations.”
He said the U.S. doesn’t have enough money to buy additional booster vaccines for anyone who wants it. Instead, the availability of these vaccines may be limited to the most vulnerable — not unlike the chaotic early days of the COVID-10 vaccine rollout.
“Without additional funding from Congress, once these next-generation vaccines are available in the fall and winter, we won’t be able to buy enough vaccines for every American who wants them,” he said.
While the U.S. has built up a stockpile of the antiviral drug Paxlovid, which has been widely effective in reducing serious illness and death, funds have run out for new doses or other even more effective treatments in the final stages of development.
“If we don’t get more resources from Congress, we’ll find a time in the fall and winter where Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries (Europe and Canada) that they can visit that Americans won’t have These treatments,” Jha said.
A roughly $10 billion congressional deal to streamline the COVID-19 response fell apart in March as the Biden administration plans to lift virus-related U.S. border immigration restrictions. But a federal judge on Friday put the plan on hold, just days before it went into effect on Monday.
There’s no guarantee of swift action on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers — especially Republicans — are newly wary of deficit spending. A $40 billion measure to aid restaurants struggling during the pandemic failed on those grounds on Thursday. Republican lawmakers also opposed additional funding for the global pandemic response and called for any new virus response funding to come from unspent economic relief funds in the $1.9 trillion rescue package.
The administration is preparing to put the blame on lawmakers if there are severe consequences this fall due to a lack of funding. Still, it could be dangerous for Biden, who has struggled to fulfill his promises to voters to contain the outbreak.