Biden Administration Pares Back Covid Fight as Funding Push Falls Short

The Biden administration has stopped paying for free Covid-19 tests to be shipped and expects to end free vaccines for Americans after Congress cut billions of dollars for such efforts from a government funding bill last month.

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People familiar with the matter said the government’s Covid-19 task force would remain in place ahead of an expected surge in cases over the coming winter months. But the team will shift the focus from emergency response to longer-term problems, like boosting domestic manufacture of personal protective equipment, researching long-lived Covid and supporting genome sequencing to identify variants, the people said.

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The changes come as Covid-19 cases rise in Europe, often a precursor to rising case numbers in the US, and the arsenal of available treatments for people infected with Covid-19 has dwindled as mutations it Variants allow you to evade them.

The White House had asked Congress for $22.4 billion for more Covid tests, vaccines and treatments.


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Kyle Mazza/Zuma Press

“Just because we ended the emergency phase of the pandemic doesn’t mean Covid is over,” said Eric Topol, executive vice president of Scripps Research, a medical research organization.

The administration had requested $22.4 billion from Congress and recently extended the pandemic’s status as a public health emergency. The White House said the money is needed to pay for more testing, vaccines – including the development of new next-generation vaccines – and treatments.

The money was not included in a bill pending government approval last month.

The White House has tried to show progress on fighting the vaccine after President Biden struggled with promises to bring the pandemic under control. Last month, Mr. Biden described the pandemic as over. The seven-day moving average of cases was about 41,000 on Oct. 9, compared with more than 800,000 in the seven days ended Jan. 15.

“Because of Congressional inaction, we are going into this fall and winter without adequate testing,” Ashish Jha, the White House Covid-19 coordinator, said recently. “You can’t fight a deadly virus without resources.”

Republicans who opposed including the Covid funds in the spending account said there had not been a thorough accounting of how pandemic relief funds had been spent. According to USASpending.gov, which tracks information on federal spending, Congress had committed about $4.6 trillion by August.

“They received amazing amounts of money,” Senator Richard Burr (R., NC) said at a recent congressional hearing.

Funds for the federal government to purchase and supply Covid-19 vaccines are expected to run out early next year. The government is now looking at ways to ensure some 30 million uninsured people have access to future boosters, treatments and vaccines.

The new bivalent vaccine could be the first step in the development of annual Covid shots, which could follow a process similar to that used to update flu vaccines annually. Here’s what this process looks like and why applying it to Covid could be challenging. Figure: Ryan Trefes

The government is also in talks with various stakeholders such as vaccine manufacturers on how to make the transition from government procurement of vaccines to more traditional models such as insurance coverage for vaccinations or treatments.

The federal government has halted its program of providing free Covid-19 tests to people who ordered them online. In other places like long-term care facilities and rural health clinics, it continues to distribute free tests.

The Biden administration in January directed health insurers to reimburse people for up to eight tests per month per insured person or let them buy tests through their insurance for free.

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The government is also figuring out how to advance its efforts to develop a more durable next-generation Covid-19 vaccine without the funding boost. Without a vaccine to block both infection and transmission, the virus could continue to mutate to evade immunity. Members of the White House Covid-19 task force have said a nasal vaccine could be more effective because it targets immune responses where the virus first enters the body.

Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said the National Institutes of Health will award grants totaling more than $60 million over three years to academic institutions to develop a broad coronavirus vaccine. However, more funding is needed to complete this work, said Dr. Fauci, who directs the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Some public health leaders and federal officials say the US is falling behind countries like China, which has introduced a vaccine that is inhaled through the nose and mouth.

“It’s a national security risk,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, professor of epidemiology and director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health in Rhode Island. “Other countries have looked at how the US is fighting.”

Write to Stephanie Armor at [email protected]

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