White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha warned on Wednesday that every day that goes by without Congress providing funding to fight the virus, the United States falls further behind in line to buy updated vaccines.
“My take is every day we wait, every week we wait, we just fall a little further behind in line,” Jha said at the first formal press briefing of the COVID-19 response team since he took over last month.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on new versions of their vaccines that are aimed at working better against the omicron variant that is currently circulating, and those vaccines are expected to be ready by the fall.
But the White House warns that it will not have enough money to purchase those new vaccines for all Americans unless lawmakers provide new COVID-19 funding, a request that has been stalled for months in Congress.
Officials say the clock is ticking, because there is a limited supply of the new vaccines and other countries are also angling to get them.
“The truth is other countries are in conversations with the manufacturers,” Jha said.
“It takes about three months to manufacture these and if we want to be ready for the fall it’s not too early to start thinking about this stuff,” he noted. “And in fact, we’ve had some very preliminary conversations with the manufacturers, but the negotiations around it have not yet begun partly because we’re waiting for resources.”
Without new funding from Congress, Jha said there would be enough money only for updated vaccines for “some Americans, maybe just the highest risk.”
Without new money and updated vaccines for all Americans, Jha warned there would be “a lot of unnecessary loss of life” when a new wave hits in the fall and winter.
Congressional Republicans have long said they do not think new COVID-19 funding is urgent, and have also called for a vote as part of any funding deal on keeping in place a Trump-era policy at the southern border, known as Title 42, that allows for rapid expulsion of migrants in the name of public health.
The vote on Title 42 would be politically divisive for Democrats, given that some of their moderate members would join Republicans, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) has so far declined to say whether he will allow the vote in order to get the COVID-19 funds moving.
The White House has requested $22.5 billion, though a bipartisan agreement to pay for the funds last month only provided $10 billion.
Jha has been talking to lawmakers in both parties to make the case for the funding, and said Wednesday he is still “confident” that it will pass eventually.