Washington - For the majority of the past two decades, America has been at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccines.The White House warns that the U.S. must take action if Congress does not act quickly as drugmakers continue to develop new therapies.
Already, the congressional impasse over funding virus treatment has forced the federal government into a stalemate that saw it cut off free treatment for uninsured people and ration monoclonal antibodies supplies. Biden administration officials expressed increasing concern that the U.S. may be missing out on crucial opportunities to secure new antiviral pills and booster doses that could help maintain its sense of normalcy in the face potential new variants or case spikes.
According to the White House, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have placed orders for vaccine doses and treatments that the U.S. cannot yet commit to.
The White House warned months ago that the country had exhausted the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan money that was specifically dedicated to COVID-19 response. It requested $22.5 billion more for "urgent" requirements in the U.S. as well as abroad.
Last month, the Senate approved , a smaller package of $10 billion that was focused on domestic needs. However, even that deal was canceled when lawmakers objected at an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that it would lift Trump-era borders restrictions in relation to the pandemic.
This week, the White House is pushing doctors to be more generous with prescribing Paxlovid, an antiviral pill that was originally restricted for people at highest risk of severe consequences from COVID-19. However, it is now available for all. The government placed a 20 million-dose order last year to increase manufacturing capacity. For the first time since he started the job, Dr. Ashish Kumar Jaha, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, will be appearing in the White House briefing area Tuesday afternoon.
When administered within five days of symptoms arising, Paxlovid has been shown to reduce hospitalizations and death rates by 90% in patients most likely to develop severe diseases. The number of Americans who are dying from the coronavirus is now 314 compared to the 2,600 that died during the peak of the omicron wave earlier in the year.
Similar advance-purchase agreements were used by the U.S. to increase the domestic supply of COVID-19 vaccines and make them more affordable. This was called "Operation Warp Speed" in Trump's administration.
The U.S. is now falling behind, even though a new generation of treatments is on the horizon.
Japan has already placed an order for Shionogi, a Japanese drugmaker's COVID-19 antiviral medication. Studies have shown that it is at least as effective than Pfizer's treatment. It has fewer drug interactions and is easier and more accessible.
Officials claim that the U.S. has not yet placed an advance order due to delays in funding. This would allow the company to scale manufacturing and produce large quantities of the pill.
"We know that companies are developing additional, life-saving treatments to protect the American people. Without additional funding from Congress we risk losing our ability to access these treatments as well as testing and vaccines while other countries move ahead of us," stated Kevin Munoz, White House spokesperson. "Congress must immediately act upon returning from recess to ensure that new treatments are secured for Americans and avoid such a dangerous outcome.
The long lead times required to produce antiviral and antibodies treatments adds complexity. Paxlovid takes six months to make, while monoclonal antibodies treatments that treat COVID-19 or prevent serious diseases in the immunocompromised take about the same time. This means the U.S. has little time to replenish its stockpile by the end of the year.
In an effort to ensure that supplies last longer, the White House cut back on monoclonal antibody treatment shipments to states last month.
Officials from the Administration declined to discuss which treatments they were prevented from ordering due to contracting requirements.
U.S. purchases for COVID-19 booster doses are also being held up by the funding debate. This includes a new generation of vaccines that might better protect against the omicron variant.
Moderna and Pfizer are both testing "bivalent" shots, which scientists refer to as a mixture of the original vaccine and an omicron targeted version. Moderna announced last week that it plans to have its version ready by this fall.
According to the Biden administration, the U.S. does not have enough vaccine doses to treat children below 5 years old, once they are approved and for those over 50 at high risk, the government doesn't have the funds for the next generation.
An earlier version of this month, former White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients stated that Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines had all received future booster doses.
Republicans are not going to relent on their demand that the Senate vote on the extension of Trump's Title 42 order, before they supply the 10 GOP votes required for the COVID-19 funding bill to pass the Senate. The COVID-linked order that requires authorities to expel almost all migrants crossing the border is due to be lifted May 23.
Democrats would be in danger if they attempted to extend the order through an election year vote. Many hope that such a vote does not occur. Although many privately hope that President Biden will maintain the immigration curbs or that a court will delay the rules' ending, Republicans could force a vote.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, stated Monday that Congress would need to act in order to avoid May 23rd.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), stated that he expects legislation this spring to combine funds for COVID-19 with Ukraine. Although aid for Ukraine is popular among both parties and could be a catalyst to a bill through Congress, the Republican opposition has forced legislators once again to cut off funding for pandemic response.
At least six Democrats and possibly 10 more would support the Republican amendment to extend immigration order. This would ensure its passage.
This vote would be dangerous to Democrats from swing districts. They must appeal to proimmigration core Democratic voters while not alienating moderates who are leery about the expected increase in migrants that lifting curbs will cause.
The Republicans have not yet stated what language they would accept, but they could consider a bipartisan bill from the Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.
It would suspend any suspension of immigration limits for at least 60 days following the declaration by the U.S. surgeon General that the pandemic is over. The administration would have to also propose a plan to deal with the expected increase in migrants crossing the border. Democrats who support keeping immigration restrictions in place cite a lack in planning by the administration as their main concern, even though the Biden administration insists it is ready for an increase in border crossings.