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Joe Biden’s Covid-19 tsar warns millions risk losing access to treatment

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Millions of Americans risk losing access to life-saving Covid-19 treatments that were previously given for free if Congress fails to approve more pandemic funding, Joe Biden’s coronavirus tsar has warned.

Ashish Jha, who runs the US pandemic response, told the Financial Times that lives were at risk if the money is not released soon, with members expected to vote on a wider bill to fund the government in the coming weeks.

The White House has been pushing members for months to approve tens of billions of dollars in additional funding to continue fighting the pandemic even as it enters a less acute phase. The money would be spent on buying new vaccines, protective equipment and treatments such as Pfizer’s antiviral pill and the monoclonal antibody drugs made by AstraZeneca.

Millions of Americans have taken Pfizer’s Paxlovid treatment for free, including the president. But Jha warned supplies could dry up if government funding is not secured.

“It may be that a major insurer isn’t able to secure a deal fast enough. It may be that like Pfizer is negotiating with the UK and Germany, and this [US] insurer is not doing a good job of negotiating, so it doesn’t happen,” he said. “All of a sudden you will find millions of millions of Americans without access to these things.

“To me those things would be a totally preventable travesty,” he added.

The White House asked Congress in March for $15bn to pay for fresh Covid supplies and research. But that was rejected when members of both parties raised concerns over where the money would come from.

Since then, the administration has paid for 171mn doses of a new vaccine tailored to the Omicron strain by taking money away from funds earmarked for tests and personal protective equipment.

Jha warned that those stockpiles were running low as a result. “We had money to build up a testing stockpile so that if we get an Omicron-like event again, we will have a stockpile of tests that we can send out to the American people.

“We’re going to have an inadequate stock because we did not buy as many tests as we needed.”

Now Biden has gone back to Congress with a request for $22.4bn in pandemic funding as part of the so-called continuous resolution, which members must pass by the end of this month or face a government shutdown.

Part of that request is designed to conduct research into the next generation of vaccines. Jha warned that if it is not approved, the US faces losing out to China and India in the race for nasal and oral vaccines.

Last week Bharat Biotech received approval in India for emergency use of its two-dose nasal Covid vaccine, while Beijing approved a vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics, which is inhaled through the mouth.

Jha said: “This is an essential investment, not just for Covid, but for future respiratory pathogens as well. [If the research is not funded] we will fall further behind China on this. And that strikes me as a self-inflicted wound that Congress should not do.”

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