The White House has warned that funding to combat the Covid-19 pandemic will soon run out.
Uninsured Americans will no longer be able to receive free Covid-19 tests and treatments after March 22, and will no longer be able to receive free vaccinations through the federal Uninsured Program after April 5. The White House has stated that it will not be able to purchase additional antiviral pills or new monoclonal antibody treatments for Covid patients, nor will it be able to fund surveillance to catch future waves of the virus.
The White House wants $22 billion; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to pass $15 billion but was met with opposition from Republicans and Democrats who were angry that the money would come from the Biden stimulus plan’s funds for state governments. Even though the pandemic is far from over, if this impasse holds, the federal effort to stop it could be effectively over.
That would be a huge mistake. Congress, on the other hand, is refusing to invest heavily in preventing the next pandemic, which is equally disastrous.
The failures that made Covid-19 such a disaster — and prevented the federal government and the international community from putting an end to it while it was still a minor outbreak — are still present. We still lack the ability to adequately monitor new infectious diseases, and we continue to underinvest in developing treatments and vaccines for viruses that, if left unchecked, could cause a pandemic.
To be fair, Congress hasn’t accomplished nothing. A bill with some legal changes that could improve pandemic preparedness has bipartisan support. The PREVENT Pandemics Act is the result of a year’s work by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and ranking member Richard Burr (R-NC), and it passed the committee on March 15 by a 20-2 vote.
Among other things, the bill establishes a White House office for pandemic preparedness, authorizes a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the government’s failure to contain Covid-19, and demands more information sharing between the CDC, state and local health departments, and other public health agencies. If the bipartisan committee vote is any indication, the bill has a good chance of passing both the Senate and the House of Representatives and reaching Joe Biden’s desk.
However, the bill only allocates about $2 billion in new funding to combat future pandemics. For perspective, a bipartisan group of former government officials (including noted conservatives like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Lisa Monaco, who served as a national security official under Presidents Bush and Obama) has proposed a $10 billion annual investment in biodefense over the next decade, totaling $100 billion over the next ten years. Over $24 billion would go toward developing and manufacturing vaccines alone, according to Biden’s own pandemic preparedness plan, which calls for $65.3 billion in funding over the next seven to ten years. In other words, the PREVENT Pandemics Act omits roughly 97 percent of the funding that bipartisan experts and the White House believe is required to prevent pandemics.
“We’ve seen time and time again over the last two years how our response to this pandemic could have, and should have, been better — how public health data was slow and incomplete, how development and review of tests and treatments could have been faster, and so much more,” Murray said in a statement to Vox. “The PREVENT Pandemics Act is a set of bipartisan solutions to address these policy flaws and better prepare us to respond to future public health threats.”
“However, passing the PREVENT Pandemics Act is only one part of the equation: we also need to pass the COVID-19 emergency supplemental funding so that our current response does not falter, and we absolutely need sustained, annual funding for public health, as I’ve proposed in my Public Health Infrastructure Saves Lives Act.”