WASHINGTON — The White House is begging Congress for more funds to help with Covid-19 surveillance, testing, and treatments — a call that could be bolstered by the emerging signs of an increase in Covid-19 cases in Europe.
After lawmakers’ plan to provide $22.5 billion in Covid-19 funding imploded last week over disagreements about how the new spending should be paid for, the White House has been faced with cutting back on its pandemic response activities because its budget is nearly exhausted. It’s unclear whether additional funding is on the way.
The Biden administration on Tuesday laid out a roadmap of the cutbacks and shortages that could happen if no more funding is provided. Specifically, senior administration officials said they would need to wind down some Covid-19 surveillance investments, and that testing capacity could crater after June.
“With reduced capability to perform adequate surveillance, the country will be prone to being ‘blindsided’ by the next variant,” the White House said in a summary of the cutbacks.
Other consequences of the funding shortage include limits on the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments, therapies used by immunocompromised patients, and antiviral pills, and cutbacks in research on next-generation countermeasures that could be more effective.
The White House’s push for an additional infusion of resources comes at somewhat of a perplexing point in the pandemic. Nationally, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to fall from the Omicron wave. At the same time, some experts are growing anxious as other metrics signal a possible resurgence of the virus. The Covid situation in Europe has often foreshadowed what occurs here, and countries there have seen a rebound in infections and even hospitalizations in recent weeks. In the United States, a handful of wastewater surveillance sites are showing an uptick in virus levels.
There are a number of possible explanations for what’s occurring in Europe and what might be starting to happen in the U.S. Countries have rolled back most of their remaining mitigation policies, and an even more transmissible form of the Omicron variant, called BA.2, has been building up in prevalence. Updated CDC data released Tuesday showed that BA.2 is now accounting for some 1 in 4 U.S. infections.
It’s also possible that the immunity people have to the virus — built up both from vaccinations and past infections — could be starting to wane a bit against infections, even if it should still broadly protect most people from severe illness. Modelers aren’t sure exactly how those factors might shape the U.S. epidemic, with some expecting them to just slow the pace of the current decline but others anticipating they’ll drive another resurgence, albeit a smaller one than the initial Omicron wave.
It’s also not clear how damaging another spike in cases will be. Because of all the immunity out there, cases are increasingly less likely to translate into hospitalizations and deaths.
But the U. S. remains more vulnerable to the impact of another surge than some European countries, largely because the U.S. booster uptake rate is lower. Many adults will be well protected with just the primary series of the Covid-19 shots, but boosters are more important for protecting older people or people with underlying health conditions from a virus as evolved as Omicron. The lower booster rate is one reason why the U.S. suffered a more destructive Omicron wave than some European countries.
The White House warned Tuesday that the federal government may not have enough supply if an additional booster dose of the vaccine is needed for all Americans, or a potential variant-specific vaccine of the future.
Any uptick in cases will also likely lead to an increased demand for Covid-19 therapies like Paxlovid and monoclonal antibody therapies, the availability of which the White House argues is threatened without more funding.
Senior administration officials said the White House is eventually hoping to transition purchasing for some countermeasures to a more traditional model where providers and pharmacies purchase items and insurance pays, but the market dynamic for many items right now means providers in the U.S. would be competing with the governments of other countries.