By ZEKE MILLER Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — For much of the past two years, the United States has been first in line for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Now, as drugmakers develop the next generation of therapies, the White House is warning that if Congress doesn’t act urgently, the US will have to make a decision.
Congress’s impasse over funding for the virus has already forced the federal government to cut free treatment for the uninsured and ration supplies of monoclonal antibodies. And Biden administration officials are expressing growing alarm that the US is also missing critical opportunities to secure booster doses and new antiviral pills that could help the country maintain its resurgent sense of normalcy, even against possible new variants and spikes in cases.
Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and Hong Kong they have done all the orders for treatments and vaccine doses that the US cannot yet commit to, according to the White House.
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Months ago, the White House began warning that the country had spent the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan money that was directly dedicated to the COVID-19 response. It requested an additional $22.5 billion for what it called “urgent” needs both in the US and abroad.
Last month, the Senate closed a smaller $10 billion package 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.
This week, the White House is pushing for doctors to be less stingy in prescribing the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which was initially rationed for those most at risk of serious outcomes from COVID-19 but is now more widely available. An order for 20 million doses placed last year by the government helped boost manufacturing capacity.
Paxlovid, when given within five days of symptom onset, has been shown to produce a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to develop severe illness. Some 314 Americans now die each day from the coronavirus, up from more than 2,600 during the height of the omicron wave earlier this year.
The US used similar advance purchase agreements to boost domestic supply and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, through what became 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 is at least as effective as Pfizer’s treatment and has fewer drug-drug interactions and is easier to administer.
Due to funding delays, officials say, the US has not yet placed an advance order, which would help the company scale manufacturing to widely produce the pill.
“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 tests and vaccines, while other countries they go ahead of us in line,” White House spokesman Kevin Muñoz said. “Congress must act urgently upon returning from recess to provide the funding necessary to secure new treatments for the American people and avoid this dangerous outcome.”
Further complicating matters are the long lead times for manufacturing antiviral and antibody treatments. Paxlovid takes about six months to produce, and monoclonal antibody treatments used to treat COVID-19 and prevent serious illness in immunocompromised people take a similar amount of time, meaning the US is running out of time to replenish your reservations before the end of the year.
Last month, the White House began reducing shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments to states to make supplies last longer.
Administration officials declined to discuss specific treatments they cannot order due to contracting requirements.
The funding debate is also delaying US purchases of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses, including an upcoming new generation of vaccines that may better protect against the omicron variant.
Both Moderna and Pfizer are testing what scientists call “bivalent” injections, a combination of each company’s original vaccine and an omicron-targeted version, and Moderna announced 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 are approved by regulators, and for the fourth vaccine for high-risk people over 50, it does not have the money to order the new generation of vaccines. dose
Earlier this month, former White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said that Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hong Kong had already secured future booster doses.
Republicans have shown no signs of backing down from their insistence that before providing the 10 Republican votes needed for the Senate to pass the COVID-19 funding package, the House must vote on their effort to extend Title 42’s order of the Trump era. That COVID-related order, which requires authorities to immediately expel almost all migrants at the border, will be lifted on May 23.
An election-year vote to extend that order would be dangerous for Democrats, and many hope such a vote will not happen. Many privately say they hope Biden will keep immigration restrictions in place or a court will postpone ending the rules, but Republicans may well force a vote anyway.
“Congress would have to take action so that day is not May 23,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said earlier this month that he expected legislation this spring that would pool funding for COVID-19 and Ukraine. Aid for Ukraine has broad bipartisan support and could help push such a package through Congress, but Republican opposition has already forced lawmakers to cut pandemic response funding once.
There are at least six Democrats, and potentially 10 or more, who are expected to back the Republican amendment to extend the immigration order enough to secure passage.
Such a vote would be dangerous for Democrats in swing districts, who must appeal to core pro-immigration Democratic voters without alienating moderates wary of the surge in immigrants that raising sidewalks is expected to spark.
Republicans haven’t said what language they would adopt, but they could turn to a bipartisan bill by Sens. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona.
It would delay any suspension of immigration limits until at least 60 days after the US surgeon general declares that the pandemic emergency is over. The administration would also have to come up with a plan to handle the anticipated surge of migrants crossing the border. Democrats who voiced support for keeping immigration restrictions in place have cited a lack of planning by the administration as their main concern, though the Biden administration has insisted it is preparing for an increase in border crossings.
AP journalist Alan Fram contributed to this report.
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