Federal health officials on Wednesday expressed the administration’s view that more COVID-19 relief is needed to address the ongoing pandemic, saying “time is of the essence” as money runs low for therapeutics, vaccine procurement, insurance claims and more.
The Biden administration has asked for $22.5 billion in additional funding for a number of COVID relief programs, money that was initially included in a $1.5 trillion government spending package earlier this month, but was ultimately dropped.
In the first public health briefing in three weeks, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said it should be “unacceptable to every American” that Congress has failed to act to pass another aid package.
“For months, we've made clear to Congress on a bipartisan basis, that funding for core COVID medical supplies, including vaccines, treatments and tests, was running out,” Zients said. “Congress has failed to act. It failed to provide the necessary funding. And we're already seeing the consequences.”
Of high concern is the availability of vaccines, should a fourth dose be recommended for all Americans. Currently, the CDC says only moderately or severely immunocompromised individuals above the age of 12 should get four doses of an mRNA vaccine, which includes a primary three-dose series of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots, with a fourth and final booster at least three months after the third dose.
But if federal health regulators decide to recommend a fourth dose to all Americans, the U.S. currently does not have enough supply to accommodate potential demand.
“If the science shows that fourth doses are needed for the general population later this year, we will not have the supply necessary to ensure shots are available, free and easy to access, for all Americans,” Zients said. “Without more funding, we can't procure the necessary vaccine supply to support shots for all Americans.”
“Furthermore, if things change, and there's a need for a new vaccine, a new formulation, for example, a variant-specific vaccine, we won't be able to secure doses for the American people, and we won't be able to ensure America is first in line for them,” Zients said, calling the possibility “completely unacceptable.”
While the U.S. has not yet recommended the expanded dosage to the general public, other countries have – and newly available data might push the United States in the same direction.
Both Moderna and Pfizer have submitted data to federal health regulators on the efficacy of a second booster dose. Moderna has also submitted an emergency use authorization request for a fourth dose to be available for all adults, while Pfizer has submitted a similar request for all individuals over the age of 65.
An FDA advisory panel is set to meet on April 6 to discuss whether additional subsets of the population might benefit from fourth booster doses, although the group will not cover specific applications nor will they vote on any submissions. Rather, the committee will discuss “considerations for use of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses and the process for COVID-19 vaccine strain selection to address current and emerging variants,” a statement on the FDA website read in part.
In the short-term – should fourth booster doses be authorized for smaller portions of the population, like the elderly, or should more unvaccinated Americans opt to start their vaccine series – the U.S. does have enough vaccine supply, officials said Wednesday.
“I think that we do have a sufficient supply for what we anticipate could be authorized and recommended in the coming weeks, months,” Zients said. “However, when you get later in the year, if there is a vaccine, a fourth recommended for all Americans, we need the funding to secure enough supply to ensure that we have sufficient doses for all Americans.”
Vaccine availability isn’t the only thing in jeopardy should Congress not pass more funding.
As of Tuesday, the Uninsured Program – a fund that reimburses doctors and other health care providers for COVID-related testing and treatment – stopped accepting claims as money dried up. Providers must now either turn away uninsured individuals, or absorb the cost of providing the treatment. Beginning April 5, the fund will also be forced to stop accepting new claims for vaccination services.
The supply of monoclonal antibody treatments and other therapeutics are also dwindling thanks to low funds, Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday.
“We have had to cancel a purchase for additional supplies of these treatments, which had been planned for this week. Our current supply of these therapeutics is projected to start to run out by late May,” Becerra said. “One of the consequences of diminishing supply or the resources to plan ahead and invest in future need is that on Monday, we had to cut the supply of monoclonal antibody treatments that we had distributed in the past to every state.”
A new, potentially trimmed-down package is in the works on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, telling reporters on Tuesday: “I'm working with Senator Romney and other Republicans in good faith to find some pay-fors that are acceptable to Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. We hope to get it done.”
But other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., say there is still unused money available from previous packages.
"There's plenty of unspent money. It's a question of priorities," McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. "The money is there. It should be reprogrammed. That's the way forward."
Republicans and some Democrats have also taken issue with what they deem as projects unrelated to COVID funded by the aid bills, pointing to a new high-end hotel in Florida, a planned minor league baseball stadium in New York and others as examples of misused pandemic funds.
Should Congress fail to act, the administration will attempt to “divert resources” from other areas in order to fund COVID needs.
“We'll continue to do everything we can, we'll exhaust every dollar that we have. We'll use every dollar that we can, that is flexibly available to continue to provide for the need,” Becerra said Wednesday. “And we'll also begin if Congress continues to delay any additional funding, begin a process of outlining what it would take to continue to offer to the American people, those vaccines, those treatments, those therapies that they are coming to rely upon.”