Senate HELP committee tussles over additional COVID funding

Regulatory NewsRegulatory News | 16 June 2022 |  By 

NIAID Dir. Anthony Fauci

Partisan disagreement set the tone at a 16 June hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, where Democrats on the committee warned lack of additional COVID-19 funding would set back the progress made in managing the crisis while Republicans questioned whether the administration had spent the funding it already received wisely.
At the hearing, commmitte members heard testimony from federal officials including Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and President Biden’s chief medical advisor; Robert Califf, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. The Biden administration officials came before the committee to ask for additional COVID-19 funding and warned that without it they would not be able to continue the same level of research, testing and treatment they feel is needed to quell the pandemic.
In her opening remarks, HELP Chair Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) noted that much progress has been made since the pandemic began thanks in part to bipartisan support that passed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package last year. She argued it has led to the development and administration of vaccines and tests that have allowed schools to safely return to in-person learning and businesses to reopen.
“We cannot afford to get caught off-guard by this virus again, we cannot afford to go back,” she said. “That’s why I’m shocked I have to remind my colleagues the progress we have made so far was not guaranteed. It was accomplished through congressional action and through robust investments and what happens next is not a given either.”
Murray urged her colleagues to continue to provide funds to address COVID-19, especially as cases and deaths start to inch back up, and as many in the medical community express concern about a potential surge in the fall.
“It is not a matter of if this pandemic will throw us another curveball, it is a matter of when,” Murray said. “That’s why emergency COVID funding is not something that would be nice to have, it’s something we desperately need.”
HELP Ranking Member Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) took issue with how Murray framed the situation and said he doesn’t think the federal government has proven they have a real plan and how they’ve already spent the funding they’ve received.
“The Chair just did a fabulous job of painting Republicans as the obstacle for there not being enough emergency funding. I remind my colleagues, we spent $1.9 trillion just on COVID a year ago,” he said. “Where’s that money gone? How’s it been spent? Where is it obligated? No plan has been presented.”
Burr argued that US public health officials have been moving slower than their European and Israeli counterparts in responding to the pandemic. In particular, he noted that many other countries removed travel testing mandates after a significant portion of the population was vaccinated and instituted additional booster shots for vulnerable populations long before the US did.
In her opening remarks, Walensky warned that two-third of the US population lives in communities that currently have medium- to high-COVID-19 risk levels – twice as many as a month ago. She also raised concerns that funding was drying up to support community centers that have been critical in figuring out how to best implement vaccines, testing and mask programs that are needed for future crisis beyond the current pandemic.
“As we continue to support our COVID-19 response efforts, we must not forget that this will not be our last public health challenge and we will continue to face future public health risks,” she added.
Fauci, who spoke appeared via webcast, noted that NIAID had used its funding to award research grants to develop new vaccines and said the development of the next generation of coronavirus vaccines is paramount.
“I refer to a vaccine that would be effective against all SARS-CoV-2 variants and ultimately one against all coronaviruses,” he said.
He said his agency and its partners have also made significant progress in developing COVID-19 therapeutics including Paxlovid, molnupiravir, remdesivir, and the monoclonal antibody bebtelovimab.
He also noted NIAID is currently funding nine antiviral drug discovery centers for pathogens of pandemic concern that will develop oral antivirals for use in outpatient settings. The agency is also doing long-COVID studies and researching multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).
In his opening remarks, Califf listed the progress the FDA has made in allowing new vaccines, drugs and tests on the market. He also noted that the agency’s advisory committee on vaccines has met several times to discuss authorizing vaccines for children and the signs are good that the FDA will soon allow children as young as six months to be vaccinated.
“Authorizing vaccines for children is a top priority for the agency,” Califf said.
Finally, O’Connell noted that the ASPR has been trying to restock the Strategic National Stockpile with US-made personal protective equipment, not just to manage the current crisis but in anticipation of the next one. Without additional funds, that will not be possible, she added.
She said the strategic National Stockpile currently has 42 times the number of N95 respirators, eight times the number of surgical and procedural facemasks, 12.5 times the number of gowns and coveralls, 272 times the number of gloves and 10 times the number of ventilators than it did prior to the start of the pandemic.
During the hearing, Murray also said she was concerned that there are a limited number of vaccines and treatments, and they are produced by a small number of companies.
“I think everyone in this room is worried we are over-reliant on current products and not doing enough to get ahead with the next generation of vaccines, treatments, and tests,” she said. “And I’m worried we’re not investing in that research and development of products we’ll need this winter.”
Burr however challenged the narrative presented by Senate Democrats and Biden administration officials that funding is really a problem. He asked the agency heads why they didn’t include additional COVID-19 funding in their FY 2023 budget requests.
Califf and Fauci both said they had requested some additional funding in the budget but not all, partly because they didn’t anticipate the need.


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