The White House’s last-ditch effort to secure Covid money this year relies heavily on Congress’s fondness for funding medical research, but research advocates expressed skepticism that support will translate into new dollars.
The Biden administration submitted a supplemental funding request to Congress this week that includes $9.25 billion in additional Covid-19 response money—less than half of the $22.4 billion it requested a few months ago.
But just $2.5 billion would pay for continued access to vaccines, treatments for the uninsured, and maintaining the national stockpile.
More than half the request—$5 billion—would fund research to support the next generation of vaccines, such as a vaccine formula that can protect against many families of coronaviruses, or vaccines that can be administered through the nose. The White House also wants to put some of that money toward treatments, similar to the Operation Warp Speed approach of public-private partnerships to develop vaccines in record time.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to invest in research to help develop better and new tools to combat Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. Unfortunately, I think the momentum around these emergency supplemental requests has really waned over the last several months,” Tannaz Rasouli, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, said.
“But I think that’s more about philosophical questions around the need for emergency funds rather than a statement on the value of investing in medical research generally,” Rasouli added.
A Darling of Congress
An administration official acknowledged in a call with reporters that medical research has remained a darling of Congress for years.
“We’ve been very careful to focus this request on the needs that we have immediately and on pieces of the Covid response that have earned bipartisan support in the past,” the administration official said.
Appropriators increased the NIH’s budget by about 50% since 2015, with support from both parties.
“We’re absolutely confident that we can make our case to Congress and that they need to step up and do their part,” the official added.
“It could be less contentious to try to advance R&D funding than other types of funding, but unfortunately securing passage of this supplemental may well be a vertical climb regardless of which needs it is geared toward fulfilling,” Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy for Research!America, said.
While the biggest ticket items in the Covid supplemental request focus on research and development, Dehoney doesn’t think it will impact other funding streams, such as the fiscal 2023 spending bill for biomedical research that lawmakers hope to finalize by the end of the year.
Long Covid Research
Democrats intend to package the While House’s supplemental appropriations request with a full-year $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill and pass it before Dec. 16, when current government funding runs out.
The Biden administration’s $9 billion ask also includes $750 million to fund long Covid studies and treatments. Congress hasn’t provided money to boost long Covid research, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Tuesday at the HLTH conference in Las Vegas.
“We don’t have the money to do long Covid the way we should. And we’ve had to redirect monies from pots like long Covid to actually dealing with Covid today because it’s been since the end of last year since we got a chunk of money from Congress,” Becerra said.
Congress provided $1.15 billion in funding over four years for the NIH to study the long-term consequences of Covid-19 through what’s known as the RECOVER initiative.
“That was a long time ago. And I know you know how quickly a billion dollars goes because I know spend a whole bunch of it in the research you’ve done over the years,” Becerra said at HLTH to Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and former NIH bioethicist who also served as a health policy adviser in President Obama’s administration.
Rasouli, who’s also the senior director of public policy and strategic outreach at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said her trade group has urged support for emergency supplemental funding for this work.
“Ongoing vigilance will be essential to ensure that we do not lose ground while the public health emergency persists. Additionally, the emergence and spread of monkeypox has added another threat to an already taxed public health and health care system,” the group said in a letter sent earlier this month.
“We cannot risk undermining our ongoing efforts to contain COVID-19 and monkeypox by failing to fund the tools that we know will be effective in keeping our population healthy.”
The supplemental funding is still important, Dehoney said. “No one can credibly say we are out of the woods. A strain of Covid that completely bypasses current vaccines is a possibility, long Covid can arise from mild cases, and the list of valid reasons to resist declaring victory go on,” she said.
Support From Republicans Uncertain
It’s unclear whether Senate Republicans will support the White House’s request for more Covid funding.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he doesn’t “see the need” for more funding because not all the money from previous Covid-related packages has been spent.
The Biden administration has warned those funds could be exhausted by early next year.
Having the supplemental funding request focus on research innovation could help make the case for it, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), ranking member labor-health and human service panel on Appropriations. He added that he defers to Shelby on the issue.
“It’s always helpful to be more forward-thinking,” Blunt said.
In addition to Covid aid, the White House is asking for $750 million to address other infectious diseases: $400 million would restore the national stockpile with vaccines used in the monkeypox response and another $350 million would be directed to hepatitis C and HIV.
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