March 23, 2022 -- The federal government this week will begin cutting back on the anti-COVID-19 antibody treatments it ships to states, and doctors will no longer get paid for providing COVID-19 care for the uninsured, as the nation runs out of money to buy crucial tests, treatments, and vaccines needed to keep the pandemic in check.
The White House had already warned that without $22.5 billion more in emergency funding right away, its COVID-19 fight would be severely hampered. But Congress has been unable to agree on whether or how to come up with the money to pay for the waning supplies of COVID-19 tests, therapies, and vaccines.
“If the science shows fourth [vaccine] doses are needed for the general population later this year, we will not have the supply necessary to ensure shots are available free and easy to access for all Americans,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said during a Wednesday news briefing. “Furthermore, if things change and there’s a need for a new vaccine – for example a variant-specific vaccine – we won’t be able to ensure doses for the American people.”
He added, “Congress has failed to act, they’ve failed to provide the necessary funding, and we’re already seeing the consequences.”
The White House’s provider reimbursement program, which pays hospitals and health care workers for providing COVID-19 services to uninsured patients, stopped accepting new claims for testing and treatment as of Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said.
By April 5, it will stop accepting new claims for vaccination services.
“We’re in a new moment in our fight against COVID-19,” Becerra said. “At this stage, our resources are depleted.”
There are enough resources to provide vaccines for children up to 6, which will likely gain FDA approval in the coming weeks.
The lack of action has the Biden administration and public health officials throwing up their hands in frustration and concerned that the U.S. will not be prepared for the more-than-likely next wave of infections. And it means that Americans -- who have come to rely on free or mostly free tests, drugs, and vaccines -- may soon be having to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars out of pocket to fight the virus.
“We’re really very concerned about this because we’ve finally gotten to a place where we’re a lot more optimistic and better prepared to move forward,” says Marcus Plescia, MD, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “This funding issue could really undermine all of that,” he says. “They’ve got to get this worked out.”
He says the federal government has informed state officials that starting this week, it will be cutting shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments by more than 30%. State health departments are the key distribution point for the antibody therapies.
Sotrovimab is the most used antibody treatment, as it is the sole antibody therapy effective against the Omicron variant. The U.S. purchased $1 billion in sotrovimab in November and bought another 600,000 doses in January.
The U.S. has the option to buy more but cannot without more funding, and that means other nations that do have the money will move up in line, Plescia says.
The antibody therapies have always presented challenges -- from getting them to people at the right time, to setting up infusion centers -- and now most don’t work against Omicron. But those challenges have “been mitigated by the fact that we have these amazing, very powerful antivirals,” Plescia says.
Those include Paxlovid, Evusheld, and molnupiravir. But the White House said that without more funding, the government will not be able to buy any more pills beyond the 20 million it has already.
The federal government was also planning to make a specific purchase of Evusheld on March 31 to make it available to people with a weakened immune system to prevent COVID-19. It takes at least 6 months to make the drug, so if the purchase does not go through, it means there will not be enough later this year for those most vulnerable to infection, the White House said.
All the antivirals, which must be taken for a period of days, cost anywhere from $500 to $700 per course out of pocket, according to GoodRx.
The White House also said it would not have enough money to buy boosters -- a fourth COVID-19 shot -- for all Americans, if the CDC recommends another shot. Pfizer is seeking FDA approval of a fourth shot for Americans over age 65, and Moderna is seeking it for all adults.
An FDA advisory committee will meet April 6 to weigh the pros and cons of a fourth booster.
Meanwhile, other countries have begun offering a fourth shot, which heightens the possibility that the U.S. would fall behind in being able to buy more doses. Drugmakers produce vaccine in response to purchase contracts.
The federal government has also been subsidizing the manufacture of COVID-19 tests. Without more funding, that effort will come to an end in June, which means a potential shortage by the second half of the year, said the White House.
Starting Tuesday, the federal government also stopped accepting claims from doctors and other medical providers asking to be reimbursed for testing and treatments they provide uninsured patients. And on April 5, the program will stop accepting claims from doctors seeking coverage for giving vaccines.
Doctors are considered crucial to persuading more Americans to get vaccinated, as they are most trusted, says Plescia. The White House said it’s likely doctors will turn away the uninsured or be forced to absorb the cost, neither of which is a good outcome.
Finally, the White House said it would not be able to continue adequate surveillance for emerging variants or to invest in vaccines designed to work against specific variants. And it will have to reduce its purchase of vaccines for less wealthy nations. Global under-vaccination has helped lead to new variants.
“Until we don’t have the virus circulating across the world, it’s just going to be an ongoing cycle of these potential variants,” says Plescia, adding that the U.S. needs to continue to spend to be prepared.
“It would be foolish to just anticipate this is the end of any further surges of the pandemic, because that puts us into a position to not to be able to respond if it does happen,” he says.