After a prolonged back and forth, Congress passed a $1.5 trillion government spending bill last week but dropped from the final package $22.5 billion in pandemic relief that Democrats wanted to include.
On Tuesday, the same day as President Joe Biden signed the 2,741-page bill into law, his aides warned that the omission could “have severe consequences as we will not be equipped to deal with a future surge.”
The U.S. could soon run out of funding for COVID responses such as booster shots, treatments efforts, and tests if the legislation remains stuck in Congress, officials warned. The warning — which came in the form of a letter to Congressional leadership and a press release — focused on the possibility of future variants as current caseloads have dropped since the record-breaking omicron-fueled numbers from over the winter.
Vaccine “shortages will be even more acute if we need a variant-specific booster vaccine,” the White House noted. Moreover, Biden aides warned, a lack of funding could thwart efforts to develop a “pan-COVID vaccine” to stop a range of variants.
And in a call with reporters, a senior administration official warned that "in the next couple of months we could see COVID cases increase here in the U.S., just as we’re seeing cases rising abroad right now."
Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla echoed a concern about variants in a Yahoo Finance interview this week. He described new variants as “a likely scenario,” adding that we have to “outsmart the virus and be always ahead of it."
“I cannot promise a new variant won’t come but I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does,” Biden said during his recent State of the Union address. “If Congress provides the funds we need, we’ll have new stockpiles of tests, masks, and pills ready if needed.”
The White House announced other consequences Tuesday including the canceling of plans to purchase additional monoclonal antibody treatments and the expiration of a fund that reimburses doctors caring for uninsured individuals.
‘Set us back in this fight’
Lawmakers still want to pass the funding as a separate bill, but the Senate may not even consider it given Republican opposition.
“Once we lost it in the House, it’ll be tough to get back,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told reporters on Monday. “I don’t know if those House members deluded themselves into believing that there was some other path, but I think it’s hard to find an alternative path other than in the budget.”
But inaction, the White House says, will cost lives. Democrats have voiced frustration over the funding cut for COVID; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “heartbreaking” to drop the money from the package.
Republicans have been largely unified in opposing the funds. Sen. Richard Shelby (R- AL) sounded skeptical to Punchbowl News on Monday, saying: “If there’s a need for it and they can show there’s a need, you’d get — I think — overwhelming votes up here. But there’s a doubt there that they need this money, with a lot of us.”
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.