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‘Victory for the virus’: Senators cut global aid from $10B covid deal

Biden officials say that vaccinating the world is critical to protect Americans from new variants

Lawmakers reached a deal for $10 billion in funding for the U.S. coronavirus response that drops global aid from the package. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Congressional negotiators announced a deal Monday for $10 billion in additional funding for the U.S. coronavirus response but were unable to agree on global aid, stirring warnings from health experts that they would rue the decision if another overseas variant sparked an outbreak in the United States.

The bipartisan package, unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), would enable U.S. officials to purchase more therapeutics, tests, vaccines and other supplies, after the White House repeatedly warned that it needed more funding for those priorities. The legislation also calls on federal officials to invest at least $5 billion to develop and procure therapeutics, and at least $750 million in efforts to fight future variants and to build vaccine manufacturing capacity.

But it includes no money for the global response, which Biden officials have said is critical to protect Americans from the emergence of new, potentially dangerous variants in other parts of the world that would probably make their way to the United States. Earlier variants such as delta and omicron first took hold in relatively unvaccinated populations abroad before leading to surges of cases and deaths in the United States.

Vaccinating the world is “critical to our ability to protect against new variants,” President Biden said in a speech last week. “There’s no wall that you can build high enough to keep out a virus.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki urged Congress to “move promptly” to finalize the $10 billion deal and vowed that officials would continue to fight for global funding. But advocates panned the decision to punt on international aid for now.

“The U.S. has turned its back on the world,” said Zain Rizvi, research director for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization. “Penny-pinching in a pandemic will have devastating consequences for vaccinating the world, for reducing the risk of variants, for all of us. … Abandoning the global covid response will put American lives at risk.”

Senate negotiators, including Romney, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), sought a compromise with Democrats after lawmakers could not agree on a $15 billion package that would have included about $10 billion in domestic funding and $5 billion for the international response. The deal announced Monday repurposed funding from previous stimulus packages, with Republicans touting a Congressional Budget Office analysis that found the legislation “will not cost the American people a single additional dollar,” Romney said in a statement.

Biden administration officials earlier this year privately forecast that they would need tens of billions of dollars in funding to support the coronavirus response, and the White House had spent weeks formally requesting $22.5 billion in additional funds, which would have included global aid.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) had pushed the negotiators to fund the global response, and an earlier “agreement in principle” touted by Romney last Thursday would have included about $1 billion in global aid. But lawmakers were unable to agree on how to pay for that aid, said the people familiar with the deal.

Democrats said they will seek to fund the international response through a separate legislative package later this year, and Romney said in a statement that he was “willing to explore a fiscally-responsible solution to support global efforts in the weeks ahead.”

“Many Democrats and Republicans are committed to pursuing a second supplemental later this spring,” Schumer said in a statement. “It is my intention for the Senate to consider a bipartisan International appropriations package that could include additional aid for Ukraine as well as funding to address COVID-19 and food insecurity globally.”

Global health experts said delays in securing funding would hamper ongoing efforts to deliver vaccines and other aid. Some countries have already turned away vaccine donations because they are unable to quickly administer the shots. Advocates estimate that more than 2 billion people around the world remain unvaccinated, many in developing countries that need additional trained workers, transportation and refrigerated storage to safely deliver vaccines.

“What we’re fearing at this point is that some of these Pfizer doses will sit on shelves, potentially to expire, before we’re able to deliver them to needy people across the world,” said Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, a global advocacy organization.

The administration had previously announced a plan overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development to help boost the administration of vaccines in developing nations, although USAID officials have said they will be forced to pause the initiative without additional funding.

Some House members warned last week that they would not support a package that did not include funding for the global response.

“I don’t understand why we as a country would make this mistake. My constituents do not want another variant to shut down their lives,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said in an interview Thursday. “My constituents are already suffering higher prices because of covid-related economic disruptions, half a world away, in countries that are not adequately vaccinated.”

Lawmakers have been racing to reach a deal to pay for continuing the pandemic response before leaving for a two-week recess on April 9, with lawmakers warning that failing to secure an agreement now could stall the U.S. response into May.

White House officials had also amped up the urgency of their requests in recent days, saying the funding shortfall had forced them to cut the supply of monoclonal antibody treatments to states by 35 percent and delay purchasing potential fourth doses of vaccines. The administration also has begun winding down a program to cover the costs of coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccinations for uninsured Americans, an initiative that officials said costs about $2 billion per month.

Public health experts said they were pessimistic that Congress would swiftly agree to another coronavirus funding package, predicting that lawmakers would face the same obstacles.

“I don’t think that dynamic goes away,” said Hart of the ONE Campaign.

The Senate deal “demonstrates that one of the main take-home messages of this experience — that this is truly a global phenomenon — has not resonated, or at least not resonated above politics,” said Jen Kates, director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, calling the outcome “a victory for the virus.”