The Biden administration is preparing to shift COVID-19 money away from critical public health programs, including testing, to pay for new vaccines and therapeutics, as Congress stalls on approving additional pandemic funding and omicron subvariants spread across the country.
A White House official told The Washington Post the administration is taking away $10 billion in total from existing pandemic funding, half of which will go to finance updated vaccines — when those become available — and the other half will pay for treatments, including the Pfizer drug Paxlovid.
This funding shift will undercut other initiatives, including plans to produce more COVID-19 tests in the U.S., and a plan to stockpile ventilators and personal protective equipment, another aide told the Post.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, has repeatedly issued warnings to Congress that the U.S. is in need of COVID-19 funding to be prepared for future waves.
“If you want to ask what keeps me awake at night, it is that we are going to run out of vaccines,” Jha told reporters in the White House briefing room Friday. “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.”
The money scramble comes as two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5 are spreading fast around the country. BA.4 made up 5.4% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. the week ending June 4, while BA.5 accounted for 7.6% of cases during the same period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both subvariants were first detected in South Africa, where they drove an increase in cases in April and May, according to The New York Times. Still, deaths did not increase as dramatically, and that COVID-19 wave was smaller than previous ones there, Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, told the Times.
Shaman expects to see cases rise due to BA.4 and BA.5, but without necessarily seeing a rise in hospitalizations and deaths, if the U.S. follows a similar trajectory to South Africa.
For now, BA.2.12.1 still remains the dominant variant, making up over 62% of total cases in the U.S., according to CDC data.
Overall, the constant emergence of new subvariants that are able to evade immune responses has meant many Americans have been getting reinfected with COVID-19.
Jennifer McDonnell, who lives in Illinois, told ABC News she got the coronavirus in January and thought she could go back to normal life, especially since she had also been fully vaccinated and boosted, only to discover she had been reinfected with COVID-19 within a month, after her doctor ran a test.
“When he told me that I was positive for COVID-19 again, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” McDonnell said. “I thought you know six months, I’m good. I don’t need to wear a mask. We were at like a whole bunch of sporting events … at parties without masks, no social distancing — nothing — we thought we had time.”
McDonnell is hardly alone in experiencing reinfection. More than 1.6 million Americans across 24 states have reported getting reinfected with the virus since states started tracking this data, according to ABC.
Jha told “CBS Mornings” on Wednesday that the U.S. is not at the stage where it can deal with COVID-19 in the same way it does with the flu, noting the high number of infections, which have been averaging over 100,000 per day this past week.
“We are taking a very active, aggressive approach to keeping hospitalizations down,” Jha said. “If we let up on vaccinations, if we let up on treatments, those hospitalizations are going to start climbing back up again.”
“We’re in a battle, we’re fighting hard and keeping things at bay. It’s not time to let up and say, ‘OK, this is as good as it gets,’” Jha continued.
Moderna said Wednesday a new vaccine it is developing, combining the original shot with protection against the omicron variant, is effective. The company said its preliminary study results showed those who took the updated shot experienced an eightfold increase in antibodies targeting omicron, according to The Associated Press.
The White House announced Thursday vaccinations for children under age 5 could start as early as June 21. Once the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC grant final approval, the Biden administration will make 10 million doses available for pre-order to states, pharmacies and community health centers, with more to follow.