WASHINGTON — The White House is planning for “severe” contingencies that could include rationing supplies of vaccines and treatments this fall if Congress doesn’t approve more money to fight COVID-19.
In public comments and private meetings on Capitol Hill, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, painted a grim picture in which the United States could be forced to cede many of the progress made against the coronavirus. over the past two years and even the most vulnerable could face supply shortages.
Biden administration officials have been warning for weeks that the country has spent nearly all of the money from the $1.9 trillion U.S. bailout that was directly dedicated to the COVID-19 response.
There is a small reserve of cash left, and the administration faces critical decisions on how to spend it. That means tough decisions, like weighing whether to use it to secure the next generation of vaccines to protect populations most at risk or prioritizing a supply of highly effective therapies that significantly reduce the risk of serious disease. and death.
That decision could be made in the coming week, the administration says, as the White House faces looming deadlines to start placing orders for vaccines and treatments before other countries overtake the United States. to access supplies.
Jha warned that without more money, vaccines will be harder to come by, tests will be scarce again, and therapeutics that help the country cope with the current surge in cases caused by omicron without a commensurate increase in deaths. could be sold overseas before Americans can access it.
“I think we would see a lot of unnecessary loss of life if that were to happen,” Jha said last week. “But we are looking at all scenarios and planning for each one.”
He said the administration is “going much more into the realm of scenario planning to make sure we know what’s ahead of us so we can plan for it and obviously also present it to Congress.”
Jha, who declined to make a specific projection on potential loss of life, became the face of the Biden administration’s efforts to persuade Congress to approve an additional $22.5 billion for the COVID-19 response.
“The scenarios we’re anticipating are things like Congress not giving us money and we don’t have adequate vaccines,” Jha told the AP in a May 12 interview. “We’re running out of therapies. We don’t have enough tests. What could things look like? Obviously, it’s a pretty dire situation.”
Already, domestic production of home tests is slowing as workers begin to be laid off. In the coming weeks, Jha said, manufacturers will sell equipment and “retreat from this business,” leaving the United States once again dependent on foreign suppliers for rapid testing.
Drugmakers and the Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, are working to evaluate the next generation of vaccines, potentially including those that target the dominant omicron strain. But preparing them before the expected surge in cases in the fall means placing orders now, as their production takes two to three months.
Jha said this week that the United States has not yet entered into negotiations with drugmakers due to lack of money.
“We’ve had very preliminary conversations with manufacturers,” he said. “But negotiations around that haven’t started yet, partly because we’re waiting for resources.” He added: “The truth is that other countries are in talks with the manufacturers and are starting to move their negotiations forward.”
The United States, he said, does not have enough money to buy additional booster shots for anyone who wants one. Instead, the supply of these vaccines may be limited to the most vulnerable – much like the chaotic early days of the COVID-10 vaccine rollout.
“Without additional funding from Congress, we won’t be able to purchase enough vaccines for every American who wants one once this new generation of vaccines comes out in the fall and winter,” he said.
And while the United States has stockpiled the antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has been largely effective in reducing serious illness and death, it lacks the money to buy new doses – or other even more effective therapies. which are in final stages of development.
“If we don’t get more resources from Congress, what we will find in the fall and winter is that we will find a time when Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries – in Europe and Canada – with access to these treatments that Americans won’t have,” Jha said.
A congressional agreement for a lightened COVID-19 response package of around $10 billion fell apart in March over the Biden administration’s plans to lift virus-related restrictions on migration across US borders. But a federal judge suspended the plan on Friday, just days before it took effect on Monday.
There’s no guarantee of quick action on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers — especially Republicans — have recently been wary of deficit spending. On Thursday, a $40 billion measure to help restaurants that have struggled during the pandemic failed for those reasons. GOP lawmakers have also opposed additional funding for the global pandemic response and called for any new funding for the virus response to come from unspent economic relief money in the $1 bailout. .9 trillion dollars.
The administration is preparing to pin the blame on lawmakers if there are tough consequences this fall due to the lack of money. Still, it could be perilous for Biden, who has struggled to deliver on his promise to voters to take control of the pandemic.