A new wave of Covid-19 seems almost inevitable – whether it be sooner, from the BA.2 omicron variant, or later, when next winter arrives with the widely anticipated wave of cold weather. Still, the readiness of the US government to fund the response to the Covid-19 pandemic here and around the world is declining, suggesting that the US is missing another opportunity to stay ahead of the virus.
Congress has mediated a dwarfed $10 billion deal for another round of funding for Covid-19 response. The deal between Senate Democrats and Republicans comes nearly a month after slightly larger emergency funding proposal was drawn of the government’s account.
Already, when the original funding ran out, the Biden administration new orders for antiviral drugs cancelled and stopped accepting claims to pay back testing and treatment bills for uninsured Americans.
The Biden administration had originally asked Congress for more than $22 billion in new funding. The emerging deal would allocate less than half that amount; Senators have turned down funding for the global vaccination campaign because they couldn’t agree on how to pay for those provisions. But even the portion of the new funding spent on vaccines for Americans is capped at $4.25 billion under the bill as written, may ultimately be insufficient. The Biden administration recently expanded eligibility for a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccines for some Americans. There is not enough money in the account to pay a fourth dose for every American if it proves medically necessary.
The shortage threatens the pandemic response around the world and in the US.
There is already a huge difference in vaccination rates between the US and other wealthy countries and their less wealthy counterparts. In high-income and upper-middle-income countries, about 75 percent of the population is vaccinated. But there is much less protection in lower-middle-income countries (about 50 percent) and low-income countries (just over 10 percent).
The countries with the lowest vaccination rates are in Africa, which has been a focal point of the US government’s global vaccination program. USAID has spent money to help those countries’ health systems transport, store and administer the Covid-19 vaccines.
But, like Politico reported last weekUSAID expects it will have to cut funding for those activities in the second half of the year without an infusion of new funding from Congress. The deal announced this week may have been the last best chance of getting the money approved.
That is a humanitarian failure. While the official death toll in these countries is generally lower than in many wealthy countries, the statistics may drastically underestimate the real devastation of the pandemic. A recent World Bank analysis suggested that the real number of pandemic deaths in Kenya could be nearly six times higher than the official count.
“Across Africa, Covid-19 deaths may exceed official counts, pointing to the urgent need to increase global access to vaccines,” World Bank researchers wrote, less than two months before Congress. exactly that would not do.
And reducing those efforts puts not only the health of people in Africa at risk, but that of Americans as well. Experts been warning for months that if the virus continues to circulate in other parts of the world, new variants could emerge. The ommicron variety, which was first discovered in South Africa, more than 2,500 Americans killed every day at its peak.
Beyond the risk to global health, external estimates suggest that even the funding in the new legislation devoted to the US Covid-19 response may not be enough.
The $10 billion authorized in the new legislation will be used to buy more Covid-19 drugs, tests and vaccines. But it is not clear that sufficient funds will be available to support the vaccination campaign in the future.
Fourth shots are now allowed for any American over 50. According to an analysis of the Kaiser Family Foundation, the US barely has enough vaccine doses on hand to give all four injections to 70 percent of people over 50. If we want to reach 100 percent of that cohort, the country will be 225 million doses short.
For now, experts don’t believe a fourth injection is necessary for younger people unless they are immunocompromised. But that could change if a new and more dangerous variant became dominant — something that will be more likely if large parts of the world remain unvaccinated. And if the United States finally approves the fourth dose for all ages, the country would be about 500 million injections short of fully vaccinating everyone.
Getting the needed doses could cost up to $10 billion on its own, according to estimates. Of the $10 billion in new funding that Congress has negotiated, the invoice text, and another $750 million would be set aside for research into shots targeting new variants. That would save $4.25 billion to buy more of the current vaccines and increase testing capacity.
In a separate analysis, the researchers at KFF warned that future vaccine doses may also prove more difficult to obtain. Until now, the US had sufficient vaccine supplies because they bought the doses in advance. Vaccine manufacturers had a guaranteed market for a certain number of doses. But without pre-purchase agreements, companies may not be producing enough doses and the US would have to compete with the rest of the world for leftover supplies.
“Together, this could contribute to supply shortages if and when the next Covid-19 wave hits and demand increases,” the researchers wrote.
Instead of making investments now that could pay off when Covid-19 inevitably rises again, Congress is cutting corners. The cost of this myopia could be felt around the world in the coming months.