Mar 9, 2022 - Health

Congress' COVID funding compromise in context

Illustration of a stork carrying a bag of money
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Congress appears likely to allocate more than $15 billion more toward pandemic preparedness, but that probably wouldn't be enough to adequately safeguard the U.S. against future waves of COVID-19 — or even a potential wave this fall.

Why it matters: Having vaccines and therapeutics ready for a threat that may not fully materialize is difficult and expensive, but the alternative is risking hundreds of thousands more deaths and another huge hit to the economy.

Driving the news: Congress is poised to give the administration $15.6 billion more in new COVID funding, including $10.6 billion for testing, therapeutics, and vaccines domestically and $5 billion for international efforts, according to a source familiar.

  • That's about half of what the administration originally requested. But Republicans have been hesitant to give the administration more money without a more thorough accounting of how it spent all of the money that Congress already allocated.
  • Outside experts, including some members of President Biden's COVID transition team, recently called for $100 billion more in funding for pandemic preparedness this year alone.

What they're saying: Even some Republicans are saying that the funding is only enough for the short-term, and the administration will likely need to request more later.

  • "They've never pretended that they thought this money would last for very long," Sen. Roy Blunt told Politico.
  • "Without a better plan than, 'We just need more money,' I don't know that that floats the boat," a senior GOP Senate aide told Axios.

By the numbers: Replenishing vaccines and therapeutics alone could cost the U.S. billions of dollars, per back-of-the-envelope math.

  • The U.S. has some vaccine supply left from earlier purchases, but would likely need to buy more if Americans need another booster this fall and if children end up needing a third shot. Buying another dose for the roughly 260 million adults at Pfizer's original price of around $20 would cost more than $5 billion, and prices could go up.
  • The administration still needs to pay Pfizer around $5 billion for its most recent commitment to buy more antivirals, according to a source familiar with the situation. The pills are extremely effective at preventing severe disease and are key to safely living with the virus, if they are taken soon after people become infected.
  • Monoclonal antibody treatments, which are lifesaving to severely ill patients, cost around $2,000 each. That means $1 billion only buys less than 500,000 doses. The administration is currently delivering 100,000 doses a week to states (excluding Evusheld, which is used as a preventative treatment).

Between the lines: These are all existing treatments and vaccines. Ideally, we'd continue developing new products to better prepare for the future.

  • Some experts have called for an Operation Warp Speed 2.0 for next-generation vaccines and new therapeutics, on top of the research the federal government is already doing.

The bottom line: Zeke Emanuel, the lead author of the report calling for $100 billion more this year, said that $10 billion "doesn't go very far."

  • "My worry is exactly that — that we're going to underinvest and not give the amount of money we need to create the programs and infrastructure to sustain a new normal," he added.
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