Ashish Jha: Window to buy COVID-19 therapeutics closing as Congress mulls $22.5B ask

Congress’ logjam on additional COVID-19 response funding is keeping the Biden administration away from the negotiation table for next-generation therapies, potentially creating a scenario where Americans will not have the same options as other wealthy countries come fall or winter, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, M.D., said Wednesday.

Jha told reporters that he has had numerous meetings with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the potential ramifications should the White House’s $22.5 billion ask be rejected.

While the response coordinator said it was still too early to share likely COVID-19 cases or hospitalization counts for an unfunded late 2022, he was clear that the supply of Paxlovid and other therapeutics would run dry by the fall or winter without more funds.

“There are new generations of treatments that are coming online, companies that are making them with some very promising data,” Jha said to reporters during his first COVID-19 response press briefing. “The U.S. government and no one in the U.S. is in negotiations with these companies for these treatments because we don’t have the resources. The companies know that, and therefore we can’t ensure that Americans get access to the next generation of therapies that will also be available.

“If we don’t get more resources from Congress, what we will find in the fall and winter is … a period of time where Americans can look around and see their friends in other countries, in Europe and Canada, with access to these treatments that Americans will not have,” he said.

Jha, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., and National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, M.D., painted a similar picture regarding the country’s supply of additional COVID-19 vaccines.

Citing data suggesting Americans’ waning COVID-19 immunity and the continual spread of new omicron variants, the public health leaders said they are seeking the resources to provide enough vaccines for every American who will want another shot.

“Our expectation is that we’ll probably get a new generation of vaccines,” Jha said. “Without additional funding from Congress, we will not be able to buy enough vaccines for every American who wants one once these new generations of vaccines come out.”

Jha noted that, to be safe, the administration is preparing for a scenario in which Congress “abdicates its responsibilities” and provides none of the emergency funds requested by the White House. Should this occur, he said the Biden administration will look across all of its other programs for funds to ensure the country doesn’t go into the fall with zero vaccines whatsoever.

“At the end of the day, Congress works in the way that it works,” Jha said. “I remain confident that Congress is going to pull through on this and give us the $22.5 billion supplemental request that we put in.”

Outside of their plea for funds, the public health leaders provided reporters with an update on the pandemic and ongoing efforts to mitigate rising cases and hospitalizations.

As of Wednesday morning, Walensky said the CDC is seeing a seven-day average of about 94,000 reported cases, a 26% increase over the prior week’s average and a threefold increase over last month. These numbers are likely a substantial undercount due to the larger number of people testing themselves at home with rapid tests, Jha noted.

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospital admissions has hit about 3,000 per day, Walensky said, a 19% increase over the prior week.

Deaths have decreased slightly to a seven-day average of 275, which Jha attributed to the fourfold monthly increase in daily Paxlovid prescriptions Americans are receiving.

Outside of therapeutics, the response team said it’s looking to address the recent COVID-19 uptick with more rapid tests and a continued push for booster shots.

For the former, the White House on Monday reopened its program providing eight free COVID-19 rapid tests through the mail. Jha said that nearly 8.5 million households have already ordered new tests as of Wednesday morning.

As for vaccines, Walensky said that 62% of those aged 50 to 64 years and 57% of those aged 65 and older have not received any shots within the past six months.

With the combination of new variants, relaxed mitigation efforts (such as loosened mask requirements) and general waning immunity, “now is the time” for these seniors and others who may be eligible to seek out a booster shot, Walensky said.