The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House shifts pandemic money to vaccines, cutting other programs

The administration says it has no choice but to take $10 billion from testing and other areas because Congress hasn’t acted

Ashish Jha, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speak with reporters during the daily press briefing on June 2. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration is shifting dwindling federal coronavirus funds toward securing another round of vaccines and treatments — rationing money and cutting back on other critical public health programs as Congress remains at odds over whether to spend more to battle the pandemic.

The U.S. government plans to redirect about $5 billion in existing funds so it can purchase any new, updated versions of the vaccines if they become available, according to an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the deliberations. The government also intends to repurpose another $5 billion in previously authorized aid so it can secure access to therapeutics, including the pill Paxlovid, the aide said.

Without the change in approach, White House officials fear that the United States would not be able to source new vaccines or other treatments, particularly in the face of any potential fall or winter surge, given high global demand. Even so, the Biden administration’s emergency measures may not be enough to secure vaccines for every American should a new, next-generation version reach the market, according to a second White House aide.

But the moves carry additional cost, the official added, since Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly blocked the sort of robust aid package that the Biden administration has sought for months. The federal government plans to take the roughly $10 billion from programs that are supposed to help make tests available and produce them domestically, as well as initiatives meant to help stockpile protective equipment and ventilators, according to the official. The cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services could also affect planned agency work on coronavirus vaccine and treatment research.

The scramble comes amid weeks of increasingly dire warnings from the Biden administration that the country is not prepared for another late-year spike in infections, the likes of which already are starting to show this summer. Cases are up about 38 percent nationwide in the past week, although experts believe that’s an undercount because of the number of at-home rapid tests being done.

“We will continue doing our part to protect the American people,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at her daily press briefing Tuesday. “We’ll use the few funds we have remaining to continue getting testing, treatments and vaccine out to Americans for as long as we can.”

GOP opposition leaves covid aid in peril as White House warns of surge

The urgent call to action from the White House stands in stark contrast with the mood at the Capitol, where the political appetite for adopting a new round of coronavirus funding appeared to diminish even before lawmakers had focused on the deadly gun violence sweeping the nation. Behind the scenes, top White House aides still have labored to grab lawmakers’ attention, hoping to resurface the issue and break the increasingly costly political logjam.

The Biden administration first asked Congress to approve another round of aid in March, requesting $22.5 billion to help purchase tests, vaccines and therapeutics. Even then, the president’s top aides warned that it would not be enough, signaling their funding concerns even before the arrival of a new, more transmissible version of the omicron variant.

But the Biden administration’s initial entreaties met stiff resistance among Republicans. Fearing the fiscal impacts of more than $5 trillion in spending since the start of the pandemic, GOP leaders argued the U.S. government should instead repurpose existing funds, including the vast sums approved under last year’s American Rescue Plan, which the party opposed. And Republicans demanded that Democrats find ways to pay for any new pandemic spending in full rather than borrowing the money, a requirement they did not make of the billions of dollars in emergency aid for Ukraine that lawmakers approved in bipartisan fashion.

Covid response may have to be scaled back amid congressional inaction, White House says

GOP lawmakers led by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) at one point did work out a compromise with Democrats for a package that totaled not even half as much as the White House initially sought. But that roughly $10 billion proposal soon ran into its own political obstacles, after Republicans tried to use it to force a vote in an unrelated fight over immigration. The package also excluded Democrats’ requests for funds to help distribute vaccines globally, which experts say is critical to preventing the incubation of new variants.

Still, Democrats kept trying. In May, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the chamber would act as soon as it received a bill from the House, which many party lawmakers expected would include the $22.5 billion in funding that the Biden administration initially sought. By June, though, the House still had not readied such a plan, and even some top Democrats in the chamber said Wednesday that it was the Senate that needed to move first — signaling a lingering logjam.

“Why would passing it a second time magically make the Senate more supportive of what we passed? And I don’t know the answer to that question,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters at a news conference.

“If I thought, magically, our doing it again — I would certainly, you know, consider that and probably be supportive,” Hoyer added. “The fact of the matter is, I don’t think it would. We’ve done that on other occasions, and it hasn’t made any difference in the Senate. The Senate needs to get this done.”

In the meantime, top White House officials have sought to highlight the consequences of congressional inaction. Speaking to reporters at a press briefing last week, Ashish Jha, the country’s top pandemic response coordinator, expressed concern that the country is going to “run out of vaccines,” treatments and tests, particularly “in the late fall into winter, if we end up having a significant surge of infections.”

“We don’t have the resources to buy those things. And those purchases need to be made now. They cannot be made in the fall,” Jha told reporters. “So if you’re wondering what is it that really worries me — I think we have the tools for the summer. We will not have the tools for the fall and winter, unless Congress steps up and funds us.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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