COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the United States, and the country is expected to be hit with a larger surge this fall and winter as the weather cools, with up to 100 million Americans infected.
The virus has been largely weakened from the early days of the pandemic, by vaccines and new treatments like the highly effective Pfizer pills called Paxlovid.
But this is only true if these tools are actually available. With the government strapped for cash for the COVID-19 response, the Biden administration is warning that it will run out of these crucial supplies without more funding.
And that funding is stuck in Congress, with no clear path forward.
Republicans have long said they don’t see an urgent need for the funding and insisted it be paid for with money cuts from previous COVID-19 relief bills.
The two sides reached an agreement in early April on a $10 billion package that would be paid, an amount less than the White House’s $22.5 billion request. But even that amount is now locked in immigration policy, with Republicans calling for a vote to reverse the lifting of a Trump-era border policy known as Title 42 as part of any deal, which Democrats have so far not agreed to do.
Here are five risks if funding does not go ahead.
Not enough vaccines for everyone in the fall
Pfizer and Moderna are working on new versions of their vaccines that aim to work better against the omicron variant, which is currently circulating and spawning new subvariants. These vaccines should be ready in the fall, at a time when immunity will have waned for many people since their last shots.
But the Biden administration says it won’t have enough money to buy those updated vaccines for all Americans unless it gets new money.
“I never thought I’d see the day when the United States didn’t have enough funding for vaccines during a pandemic,” tweeted Topher Spiro, associate director for health in the US Office of Management and Budget. White House.
If Congress doesn’t provide new funds, a senior administration official said last week, the administration should withdraw all money from testing, new treatments and vaccine awareness, and even then , she might only have enough money to buy updated vaccines just for the elderly.
Orders must be placed months in advance as other countries also line up to buy updated vaccines and additional treatments.
“We have more tools than we’ve ever had,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and former White House COVID-19 adviser. “All of these things are time-limited in the sense that they are not unlimited in quantity.”
If new orders aren’t placed ahead of time, he said, “we’ll have to wait in line.”
Running out of treatments
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to the viral response in the United States since vaccines became available was the authorization of Pfizer treatment pills known as Paxlovid in December 2021.
If started within five days of the onset of symptoms, the pills reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by around 90%.
Stocks of the pills are expected to run out in October or November, the senior administration official said, meaning if people caught the virus during the holidays, they wouldn’t have the treatment as an option.
Unable to buy new treatments
There are also potential new breakthroughs in COVID-19 treatments that the United States wouldn’t have enough money to achieve without new funding.
The Japanese pharmaceutical company Shionogi, for example, is working on its own potentially promising treatment pills.
The senior administration official said the treatment could have even higher efficacy than Paxlovid, but the United States can’t get contracts for it because it doesn’t have enough money. By fall, other countries will have already booked all immediately available doses, the official added.
Shortage of tests
During the winter surge, people across the country scoured store shelves for rapid tests that quickly sold out or waited in long lines at testing sites.
Such shortages could be repeated next winter if there is no money to maintain testing supplies. Government funding can help maintain testing capacity and avoid layoffs at testing companies when demand is weaker, so it will take less time to restart production in the event of a surge.
The senior administration official said the goal was to go into a fall surge with a supply of around 1 billion tests, and that the country would instead have 400 to 500 million without more funding, a supply which is expected to run out before Christmas.
Inglesby of Johns Hopkins said it’s difficult to predict exactly when a surge will occur and how big it will be. “We have seen over the past two years major surges occur with very little warning time,” he said.
Reduction in global aid
Experts have long said that vaccinating the world is key to fighting the pandemic, not just for humanitarian reasons, but to help prevent the formation of dangerous new variants that would also threaten the United States.
According to a tracker from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 14% of people in low-income countries receive at least one dose of the vaccine.
The White House funding request includes $5 billion for global efforts to fight the virus, including vaccinations. Even that amount is less than many defenders have requested.
While the supply of vaccine doses themselves has improved, funding can help people get vaccinated, through building up proper storage capacity, recruiting staff, and other tasks.
Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Congress in written testimony this week that the agency has already spent 95% of funds for the global response to the virus and plans to exhaust “virtually » everything else by July.
“Without additional resources, many of our programs will begin winding down and closing this fall,” she said.