Aid stalled, White House to shift Covid-19 testing funds to vaccines and treatments

The total amount needed for a new vaccination campaign later this year is still unknown. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - White House officials said Wednesday (June 8) that they would have to repurpose federal Covid-19 funds meant for coronavirus tests and protective equipment in order to supply more antiviral pills and vaccines, after so far failing to persuade Congress to pass a new pandemic relief package.

Roughly US$10 billion (S$13.76 billion) from Department of Health and Human Services funds will be rerouted, around half of it to purchase vaccines for Americans before a possible fall or winter wave of virus cases, when an updated shot may be needed, according to one White House official.

The other half will go mostly to purchasing 10 million courses of Paxlovid, an antiviral treatment made by Pfizer that has been shown to substantially reduce the severity of Covid-19 in high-risk people, the official said.

Around US$300 million will be spent on another kind of treatment, monoclonal antibodies.

The total amount needed for a new vaccination campaign later this year is still unknown because contract negotiations are ongoing, the official added.

Officials have suggested they need at least initial funds just to cover a limited vaccination programme later this year for older Americans and people with immune deficiencies.

Some experts worry about vaccine modifications keeping pace with the speed of the virus's evolution.

Moderna released preliminary results Wednesday on a vaccine targeting the Omicron variant, saying it was the company's "lead candidate" to serve as a fall booster shot. But Omicron itself has generated subvariants that have added to uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic.

The Biden administration has warned for months that without congressional action, it could have to unwind or sacrifice key pieces of the pandemic response, even as the United States has been averaging about 100,000 new confirmed cases a day and some federal officials predict another crushing wave later this year.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday morning the plan to repurpose the funds.

Dr Ashish Jha, the White House's Covid-19 response coordinator, who has met with lawmakers about the funding requests, told reporters last week that new purchases of vaccines and treatments could not wait until the fall.

"If you want to ask what keeps me awake at night, it is that we are going to run out of vaccines," he said at a White House briefing. "We're not going to be able to have enough of the next generation of vaccines. We're going to run out of treatments. And we're going to run out of diagnostic tests, probably in the late fall into winter, if we end up having a significant surge of infections."

Federal officials have suggested that such a surge could begin this summer in the South, at a time when hot weather forces people indoors, where they can spread the virus more easily. Then, in the fall, outbreaks could spread to other parts of the country.

The amount of money White House officials said Wednesday would be diverted is roughly what lawmakers had discussed in recent Senate negotiations.

The White House asked Congress for US$22.5 billion in emergency pandemic aid, but Republicans insisted on less than half that figure - US$10 billion - and stripped US$5 billion in global aid from the request.

"There are all these, I think, other issues right now that have just kind of eclipsed it in terms of their need to be dealt with," Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said Wednesday. "So I mean, obviously, at some point, vaccines and therapeutics, it's something we're probably going to have to deal with one way or another."

The White House on Wednesday circulated a list of compromises it said the federal government would have to make because of the need to repurpose money.

The Department of Health and Human Services will not be able to buy as many at-home virus tests or support test manufacturing, leaving the United States dependent on tests from foreign countries, it said. Hundreds of jobs will be lost at companies that produce tests and protective equipment.

The department will also not be able to maintain adequate stockpiles of protective gear for front-line health workers, expand domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity or invest in research for and development of newer vaccines, including so-called pancoronavirus vaccines, which could work even against variants that have yet to emerge, the White House added.

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