WASHINGTON — A lack of new congressional funding could imperil the nation’s ability to respond to future coronavirus waves, the White House warned on Tuesday, even as prospects for passage of its $15.6 billion pandemic-response request appeared to be slim.
“We need this money,” a senior administration official told reporters during a press call on Tuesday, pointing to looming shortfalls in the ability to manufacture and widely distribute tests, therapeutics and vaccines. “Time is not on our side. We need this funding immediately.”
In an accompanying memorandum, the White House said that without new funding, it may not be able to stockpile additional vaccine booster doses and would have to cut back its purchase of monoclonal antibody treatments by 30%. Reimbursements for testing people without health insurance will end within a matter of weeks, potentially depriving Americans of pandemic-related health care. And without new funding, efforts to develop and distribute new vaccines would also be imperiled.
“Inaction will set us back in this fight, leave us less prepared, and cost us more lives,” the White House memo said.
The Biden administration had initially requested $30 billion, only to revise the request down to $22.5 billion and, finally, to $15.6 billion. But even with the amount halved, the funding failed to pass when Congress voted to provide $1.5 trillion in government funding through September. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the failure “heartbreaking,” blaming Senate Republicans, who insisted that the new coronavirus spending come from funds already appropriated to states — a measure that some Democrats refused to support because it would have come from states they represented.
The stalemate comes as cases of a new Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2, are on the rise in some countries, fueling fears of a new surge. Although reported cases are still falling in the United States, between Feb. 27 and March 13 more than one-third of the sewage sampling sites monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an increase in coronavirus rates. Experts also say it is just a matter of time until the virus evolves once more to become more transmissible or virulent — or both.
“It is a very smart virus,” Pfizer chief executive Alberto Bourla told Yahoo Finance earlier this week. “And the scenario that will come with another variant that maybe is more transmissible or maybe creates more severe disease I think is a scenario that exists. It’s a likely scenario.”
The White House will now push to pass the $15.6 billion in coronavirus funds as a standalone measure unattached to a big spending bill. Politico reported on Tuesday that the administration was looking for ways to pay the new round of funding without alienating the fragile coalition that a bitterly divided Congress requires.
“We need funding now,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday, “so we’re prepared for whatever comes.”