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Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on COVID Response and Funding Needs

March 15, 2022

Via Teleconference

10:36 A.M. EDT

MR. MUNOZ: Hey, everybody. Thanks you for joining us -- Happy Tuesday -- for this press call today. We are going to outline the consequences that a lack of COVID-19 response funding will have on the United States if Congress fails to act.

The call and the accompanying factsheet that you all just received before this will be on background, attributable to "senior administration officials," and embargoed until 11:30 a.m. Eastern.

On today's call, we have [senior administration officials].

With that, I will kick it to [senior administration official] for some opening remarks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Kevin. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us.

Today, we want to cover the consequences of a lack of additional funding for the nation's COVID response.

I'll discuss the near-term impacts, and then I'll turn to [senior administration official] to discuss the impacts on our longer-term preparedness.

First, I want to step back and provide some context on how we view this moment in the pandemic.

Over the past 14 months, the country has made critical investments, using resources that Congress provided on a bipartisan basis, to make sure the American people have access to free and widely available tools: vaccines, boosters, treatments, tests, and high-quality masks.

As a result, the U.S. has made tremendous progress: Cases are down 95 percent since the peak of Omicron. Hospitalizations are down 85 percent. Over 215 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and over 95 million Americans have received a booster shot.

But as the President said in the State of the Union, we still have more work to do.

Our scientific and medical experts have been clear that in the next couple of months we could see COVID cases increase here in the U.S., just as we're seeing cases rising abroad right now.

That's why we remain laser-focused on fighting COVID and preparing for the future.

The President has laid out a comprehensive National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan to continue the progress we've made and to ensure we keep the country moving forward safely.

We asked for immediate funding needed to start to implement that plan.

In fact, for months, we've made clear to Congress, on a bipartisan basis, that the funding for tests, treatments, and vaccines was drying up and that additional funds would be needed.

In January, we notified the Hill that funding would be needed after the Omicron surge. In February, we briefed appropriators and authorizers about the status of funds and the consequences if there were no additional funds.

We sent a formal request of $22.5 billion to the Hill, again being clear of what we could not do without more funding.

The President called for additional funding in his State of the Union address; outlined in a 96-page plan, made clear that more funding is needed.

And our team has held more than two dozen calls and meetings with members of Congress about this emergency funding request.

We have been clear: We hoped Congress would provide these resources, as lawmakers have done multiple times on a bipartisan basis under the prior administration.

Further inaction will set us back; leave us unprepared -- less prepared; and cost us more lives.

We need Congress to provide the $22.5 billion in emergency immediate funding.

Now, let me walk through some of the immediate consequences of a lack of funding.

First, on vaccines: Without additional funding, we do not have the adequate resources to purchase enough booster shots for all Americans if an additional shot is needed.

Keep in mind, when Congress passed the supplemental bill in December of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan, the mRNA vaccines were envisioned as a two-shot vaccine. We've now administered nearly 100 million booster shots, and four shots are now recommended and available for immunocompromised people.

To ensure enough fourth doses for all Americans or a variant-specific vaccine should we ever need them, we must have funding in hand.

Vaccines are our most effective tool. We cannot be caught without the ability to move quickly to get more of the most effective vaccines available as soon as we are able.

Next, on treatments: To date, we have shipped over 7 million courses of treatments to the American people. And in many cases, we have sent federal medical personnel to states to help administer those treatments. When Omicron hit, the federal government stepped in to ramp up delivery of the last remaining treatment that worked.

These efforts have saved lives in every state in the country.

We have planned -- we had planned to purchase additional monoclonals as soon as next week. Without additional funding, we are cancelling those plans. And as we will make clear to governors later this morning, we also need to cut the number of monoclonal antibody treatments we send to states by 30 percent starting next week.

Even with these cuts, we anticipate that our supply of monoclonal antibody treatments will run out as soon as late May.

Next, on the preventative treatments for immunocompromised Americans: We have purchased 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca's Evusheld -- all that they could produce to date.

AstraZeneca recently told us that they will be -- they will have additional supply that will be available for delivery starting in September. These are doses we had planned to purchase as soon as the end of March.

Without more funding, the federal government will now be forced to scale back on that purchase. So, we'll likely run out of treatments for our most vulnerable Americans by the end of the year, if not sooner.

The bottom line on treatments is this: Without additional funding soon, thousands of patients could lose access to treatments, and these companies will have little incentive to continue investing in the development and manufacturing of these treatments.

Next, on the uninsured fund: The Office of Management and Budget [The Administration] notified Congress in February that this fund that reimburses doctors and other medical providers for caring for uninsured individuals was running out of money and would have to stop taking new claims in March.

Unfortunately, we're now having to take that action.

HHS will begin to scale back this program starting next week and end it completely in early April.

This means doctors, nurses, pharmacists, labs, and other healthcare providers will no longer be reimbursed for tests, treatments, and vaccinations for people without health insurance.

And finally, in addition to all of these impacts to our domestic response, the lack of funding greatly impacts our global response.

Without more funding, USAID and our interagency partners will have to cut short efforts to turn vaccines into vaccinations around the world.

In fact, the administration won't be able to extend surge support to over 20 additional under-vaccinated countries that will need intensive support this year to get shots in arms.

This will devastate our ability to ensure these countries can effectively deploy safe and effective vaccines. And leaving large unvaccinated populations worldwide will increase the risk of new deadly emerging -- of variants emerging that could evade our current vaccines and treatments.

Without additional funding, USAID will also be unable to provide lifesaving supplies, tests, therapeutics, oxygen, and other humanitarian aid to countries still struggling to manage a continued COVID disease burden.

Now, I'll turn it over to [senior administration official] to discuss some of the long-term preparedness efforts at risk. [Senior administration official]?

One second.

[Senior administration official], can you unmute?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], do you have me now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I got you. Go for it.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, my goodness. Okay, sorry about that.

All right. So, thanks, [senior administration official]. Thanks, everybody. Let me also start with vaccines.

Without additional support from Congress, NIH and BARDA will lack the funding needed to accelerate research and development of next-generation vaccines that provide broader and more durable protection, including a vaccine that protects against a range of variants.

We'll face a similar challenge on treatments. The current antivirals require multiple pills over several days. We think it's possible to get treatment courses down to one or two pills, but that requires additional research and funding.

And when a new vaccine or treatment becomes available, it's important for us to have the funding to secure enough doses for the American people.

Over the past 14 months, we've put the massive purchasing power of the federal government to use, making sure America is first in line for promising treatments.

That's the reason we've been able to secure more Pfizer antiviral pills than anyone else in the world. These pills cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 90 percent.

Without additional funding, we lack the resources needed to get behind promising new treatments, meaning less supply available to the American people.

So the failure to invest in the research and the advanced purchase of lifesaving treatments and new vaccines now will leave the nation vulnerable in the face of a new variant or a new surge.

Finally, on testing: We have significantly increased our testing capacity in this country through targeted federal investments.

Without additional funding, we do not have the ability to maintain our domestic testing capacity beyond June.

So, after spending the last year building up our testing capacity, Congress now risks squandering that capacity heading into the second half of this year.

And because it takes months of ramp-up to rebuild capacity, failure to invest now will leave us less prepared for any potential future surges. So providing funding only when cases rise is far too late to make a difference.

Bottom line: We need funding now so we're prepared for whatever comes next.

With that, back over to you, [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Let me just close with a few thoughts here.

We have been clear-eyed and we are clear-eyed moving forward about how unpredictable this virus has been and can be moving forward.

Omicron was the most contagious variant we've ever seen. It led to an unprecedented increase in cases. But because we had the resources, we were able to surge support to Americans that needed it.

We sent tests to homes, masks to pharmacies, over 2,500 federal personnel to states, more treatments to providers. We kept our businesses open and almost all of our kids learning in person.

That was because we had resources at our disposal to act and to act quickly.

We have a plan to keep it that way, but we need the resources to execute that plan.

The failure to provide additional resources soon will have severe consequences in the near term, as I've outlined: fewer monoclonal antibodies treatments, fewer tests, fewer treatments for the immunocompromised, and a risk of running short on vaccines.

We want to be clear: Waiting to provide funding until we're in a worse spot with the virus will be too late.

Importantly, when you consider the cost of all these investments compared to the cost of what we will prevent -- in terms of hospitalizations, deaths, and damage to our healthcare system and our economy -- it is not a close call.

With that. let's open up for questions.

MR. MUNOZ: Thanks. We have time for a few questions. First, let's go to Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg.

Q: Hi there. Thank you. Can you tell us a little bit more about the monoclonal order in terms of the scale? Like how many were you planning to order? If you don't order it now, do you lose your spot in line? And, you know, if new funding came in the following weeks, would you still be able to place that order?

And, more broadly, you mentioned, on fourth shots -- can you specify: Right now, you think you have enough for immunocompromised people that are currently eligible, but without new funding, you might not have enough in the event that the broader population would need a fourth shot or be given the option to get a fourth shot?

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Josh. I'll start, and maybe, [senior administration official], you can add.

On your first question on monoclonals, the purchase was likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of more doses. We had planned to place that order next week on March 25th.

I can't say whether those -- you'd have to ask the company whether those would be available to us if we purchased at a later date. That was the plan. And as we know, these are -- these are treatments that are highly sought after not just in this country but in other countries.

And so, we have to end that purchase and we have to reduce the allocations to our states by 30 percent but that we're stretching out the supply as long as we possibly can.

On the fourth shot, we have enough now for immunocompromised individuals who need to seek a fourth shot. What we don't have the funding for is if all Americans were needed to get an additional dose, we would need additional funding from Congress.

And importantly, Josh, I would add that if we need a variant-specific testing, which heretofore we have been lucky enough not to need, but we want to be ready for that. And if we need a new vaccine, we have -- our gap in resources is even more severe if we need a variant-specific vaccine.

{Senior administration official}, anything you would add?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure, [senior administration official]. Thank you. I think you said it exactly right.

The other thing I would just add is we have to make these purchases now so the product is available in the coming months. It requires several months for some of the manufacturing to take place. So, to secure our place in line, we have to make the purchases now to bring these doses forward in the coming weeks to months.

MR. MUNOZ: Thanks. Next question. Let's go to Jeremy Diamond at CNN.

Q: Hey, thanks very much for doing this. Just searching for some more concrete numbers on the testing front. What are we at now in terms of tests per month? And how would that number be impacted after June?

And then secondly, if there were to be a game-changing variant spreading wildly in the U.S., you know, say, tomorrow, is the U.S. prepared for that?

And after which point in time would we not be prepared without additional funding?

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jeremy. It's a good question.

On tests per month, we're in the hundreds of millions of tests per month now. That's because of the investments over the last 14 months in getting to that point.

We don't know, after June, if we can maintain the domestic manufacturing capabilities that we have today. In fact, we were told by the domestic test manufacturers that they cannot. We've made investments to get us to June. We need additional funding from Congress to not lose the gains that we've made over the last 14 months in the domestic testing manufacturing.

So, it's vitally important that we continue that manufacturing so we don't lose everything that we've done in over-the-counter testing in the last year.

On variants, look, what I can say, Jeremy, is we will -- we are well less prepared without additional funding than we would be otherwise. We laid out an entire plan in 96 pages of detail for how we want to be prepared moving forward and to be prepared. We were clear in that plan, we were clear in the State of the Union, and we've been clear with Congress for the past few months that we need additional funding to do that.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Rachel Roubein at the Washington Post.

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. I was wondering: Have you guys had any conversations in the past few days with Congress about lowering the funding number at all from 15.6 billion?

And then, also, have you talked with lawmakers in recent days on additional pay-fors out of existing funds to replace the state and local aid pay-for that was taken out of the bill?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Rachel. On your first question on the conversations with Congress to reduce the funding, the answer is no. We need -- we've submitted emergency requests for $22.5 billion, and we stand by that request.

On the pay-fors, you know, we'll leave it to Congress the details of how they get this over the finish line in Congress. But I think there's bipartisan recognition that we need this money. There's recognition of the money they provided over a year ago has been well spent. And we defer to Congress on the specific legislative approach.

But I will say that there is precedence, including in the prior administration multiple times, to provide direct COVID response funding on a bipartisan basis without offsets.

And so, we hope and expect that we'll be able to rely on that precedent moving forward.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Tamara Keith at NPR.

Q: Apologies. Two years in, I can't figure out mute.

Thank you for taking my question. I'm hoping that you can sort of explain the mechanics of the markets for these various things, like why the government still needs to be involved in making these large purchases; why, you know, large hospital groups couldn't be buying the vaccines or buying the monoclonal antibodies; like, why -- why it is all so contingent on federal funds.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Tamara, it's a good question.

Look, in our preparedness plan, we outlined that we want to explore in the future the ability to transition some of COVID treatments and potentially other tools to insurance-based market, like other healthcare.

But I think our priority from the beginning is to make sure that in a once-in-a-generation pandemic that has killed over 960,000 Americans, that we're taking the measures that are necessary to make those widely available, free, and accessible to all Americans.

That's what we've done with monoclonal antibody. That's what we've done with the Pfizer pills and the Merck pills. That's what we've done with testing. And that's what we've done with, obviously, vaccines.

We think it's the right thing at this moment to continue to move forward with that.

And I'd say most important, when we have a variant that strikes like we had with Omicron, our ability as the federal government to use our purchasing power as a government to purchase all of those things, all of those tools, and get them available to all Americans on an equitable basis saves lives. And it was fundamental in Omicron, and I would -- we would argue it's fundamental if a variant were to come in the next few months.

So, yes, we want to explore over the long term a safe, a smooth transition. But right now, we have immediate needs, and we need Congress to act.

MR. MUNOZ: Let's go to Sheryl Stolberg at the New York Times.

Sheryl? All right, Sheryl, we'll come back to you.

Let's go to Zeke Miller at the AP.

Q: Hey. Thanks for doing this. Just to follow up on Tam's question there: So, why not, if -- you know, if the need is immediate and Congress right now shows no sign of budging, aren't you exploring those alternate avenues? You know, you just required private insurers to cover the cost of at-home tests. Why not have them cover the cost of vaccines and Paxlovid and other things like that?

Why does the government still need to be the middleman there, given the current rate of COVID-impacted society and mortality? I mean, how is that different than, you know, cancer or heart disease, other things where insurance is -- the private insurance market is already effective there?

And then, separately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been, you know, complaining about that lack of outreach over the last several week -- several weeks from the White House. Why did it take until, you know, just the last couple of months for the White House to sort of sound the alarm here? Shouldn't this have been something that you all raised the alarm on last year as this -- as these funds were being rapidly depleted?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Zeke. So, on your first question, I'd say, look, we are exploring those alternatives. We made that clear in the -- in the Preparedness Plan that we released a few weeks ago. But it takes time, as you know, to move to that -- to such a system. We -- it needs to be an orderly, smooth transition. So we're working through that.

I'd also say, though, especially for things like vaccines, but in fact for all of our tools, the United States competes against other countries to get access -- preferential access, as much as we can, to those tools. So we shouldn't be fooled that if we move to this market that we would still be able to provide Americans the early access to the tools that we have worked really hard for the last 14 months to be able to provide.

So if you think about a scenario where we had another variant or if we need a variant-specific vaccine, if the U.S. government sees our responsibility to provide and purchase those, you know, insurance companies would be competing against other countries to provide those, to try to purchase those, as opposed to the U.S. government stepping in and making sure that all Americans have easy, free access to something that can save their life.

So it's certainly something we're exploring. But it needs to be a smooth transition, an orderly transition, and there are certain places where we want to make sure that we are able to step in as the federal government and provide that access where we think it is merited.

To your second question on outreach: You know, we have been clear with Congress since mid-January that funds in our existing balances were low. We briefed appropriators and authorizers in February on our immediate needs.

Also in February, we sent a document to the Hill clearly outlining the near-term consequences of no funding, which included specifically saying things like the uninsured fund would have to stop taking claims in March -- we are now in March; monoclonals would stock out in May if we didn't have funds by March; that AstraZeneca for immunocompromised would stock out this summer if we didn't have funds in March.

We then -- the Acting Director of OMB, Shalanda Young, sent a letter to Congress in March -- early March asking for the $22.5 billion.

So we've been clear with Congress on how funds were dwindling in these accounts and that there were -- there were going to be immediate consequences of that. And we're making that -- those consequences clear again today.

MR. MUNOZ: Next question, let's go to Jeff Mason at Reuters.

Q: Thanks very much. Two questions. One, can you -- I know, [senior administration official], that you said you would leave the mechanics of how Congress did this to Congress, but can you just outline what the options are at this point? Do you expect that Democrats would have to put this into a separate bill or the reconciliation bill? Or what is your expectation at least for options on how on how to get this across the finish line?

And secondly, I saw that Punchbowl wrote a story this morning about a letter that you've written to Congress about this. Can you get us that letter or confirm that that was written?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jeff. So, [senior administration official] on mechanics, and I welcome [senior administration official] to jump in here after I talk if they want to add.

But, you know, I think, as I mentioned, there are many avenues that Congress can do to move to move this funding forward. The -- what we see is past precedent under the prior administration for bipartisan support for funds for direct COVID response to save lives that were provided multiple times without offsets. So we think there's clearly a precedent for that. We're asking for $22.5 billion for immediate funding, and we think Congress should move on that.

I say on reconciliation -- again, I defer to Congress, but we need this money now. These are immediate, near-term consequences, some of which we're having to act on this week, next week, and the first week of April. So, time is not on our side; we need we need the funding immediately.

And then on the letter to Congress that's being sent today -- and we'll make sure that folks have access to that.

MR. MUNOZ: Last question, let's go to Cheyenne Haslett at ABC News.

Q: Thank you. Hi, guys. So, I wanted to clarify on testing: Is capacity declining this month, as we previously heard in March, or do you have enough on that front to get through June unscathed, [senior administration official], as you said, just a bit ago?

And then on Test to Treat: Can that new program still go on? Are there enough antivirals to support that or is that going to have to be scaled back?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. On testing capacity, [senior administration official], I don't know if you want to add here, but we have domestic manufacturing capability to sustain our domestic manufacturing capability until June. And at that point, it will greatly diminish.

[Senior administration official], anything you'd add on testing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that's exactly right. Due to federal support, we've been able to maintain this manufacturing capacity, even though as [senior administration official] mentioned, we are hearing from our domestic manufacturers that demand from other places is starting to crater.

So, it's very important that we have this federal funding to support that manufacturing. And we anticipate we can keep it going through June.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. And then, Cheyenne, just on your second question: We do have the pills to do Test to Treat. We do not, however, have funding -- and this is clear in the materials we put out -- to make any additional purchases of Pfizer pills beyond the ones that we've made.

MR. MUNOZ: All right. Well, thank you, everybody, for joining today.

As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 11:30 and attributable to "senior administration officials."

Let me know if you have any other questions, and have a good day.

11:03 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on COVID Response and Funding Needs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354929

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