As BA.2 spreads, Biden administration officials call on Congress to pass Covid-19 funding
Senior administration officials said on Wednesday that Congress’ failure to approve billions in Covid-19 funding is hampering the administration’s ability to respond to the threat of new variants and future waves.
The warning comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing the BA.2 subvariant strain of Omicron comprises over a third of Covid-19 cases in the United States, twice what it was just over two weeks ago.
BA.2, which is more transmissible than the Omicron BA.1 variant that hit the U.S. this winter but not more severe, isn’t driving a new surge of cases in the U.S. yet. Covid-19 cases are still trending downward nationally, as are deaths and hospitalizations.
But upticks in case numbers, hospitalizations and virus levels in wastewater have been reported in parts of New York and New England, regions where BA. 2 is already dominant, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Wednesday press briefing.
“The virus is not waiting for Congress to act,” said White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. “With every minute this funding request is stalled, we're losing our ability to protect people and be prepared.”
The White House has said that it’s running out of the money it needs for testing, procuring treatments, vaccines and maintaining surveillance of the virus after Congress didn’t approve its $22.5 billion request to continue the fight against Covid-19 earlier this month. Congress had planned to include $15.6 billion of that request in the omnibus, but that, too, was cut out before the bill passed due to disagreements about how to pay for it.
The Biden administration is looking at approving a second booster shot for some adults within weeks, to improve older Americans’ immunity should infections rise due to the BA.2 subvariant.
“We have enough inventory of vaccines to support possible fourth doses this spring,” Zients said. “However, if the science shows that fourth doses are needed for the general population later this year, we will not have the supply necessary to ensure shots are available ... Furthermore, if things change, and if there's a need for that new vaccine, a new formulation, for example, a very specific vaccine, we won't be able to secure doses for the American people and we won't be able to ensure America is first in line for them.”
The Biden administration has been watching Europe’s rising cases with concern as it seeks to move on from the pandemic. Over the last two years, the U.S. has experienced Covid-19 waves several weeks after they have started in Europe. Infections are rising in 18 of Europe’s 53 countries, the head of WHO Europe said on Tuesday, blaming the spike in part on many countries lifting their restrictions too abruptly.
In the U.S., too, restrictions have relaxed dramatically in keeping with CDC guidelines that nearly all of the country can safely take off their masks indoors. Concerts are packed, workers are heading back to their offices and schools are dropping mask mandates, despite relatively low levels of vaccination among vaccine-eligible children and adolescents.
“You can look at this as the glass half full,” says Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “Since BA.1, more Americans have been vaccinated. Many more have natural immunity. The weather is improving and we’re not all at home."
“On the glass-half-empty side, vaccinations are moving really slow. There is some waning immunity and everyone is out and about acting like there is no pandemic anymore.”
Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated the name of the Bipartisan Policy Center.