WASHINGTON (AP) — White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha has issued a dire warning that the United States will be increasingly vulnerable to the coronavirus. this fall and winter if Congress does not quickly approve new funding for more vaccines and treatments.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Jha said Americans’ immune protection against the virus is waning, the virus is adapting to be more contagious, and booster doses for most people will be needed — with the potential for enhanced protection against a new generation of vaccines.
His warning came as the White House said there could be as many as 100 million virus infections later this year – and President Joe Biden somberly ordered flags to half the staff for mark 1 million deaths.
“As we come into the fall, we are all going to be much more vulnerable to a virus that has much more immune evasion than even today and certainly six months ago,” Jha said. “It makes a lot of us vulnerable.”
Jha predicted that the next generation of vaccines, which will likely target the currently dominant omicron strain, “will provide a much, much higher degree of protection against the virus that we will encounter in the fall and winter.” But he warned that the United States risked losing its place to other countries if Congress did not act in the coming weeks.
Speaking about the need to provide vaccination assistance to other countries, Jha expressed the urgency in terms of benefits for Americans, even if they never travel overseas.
“All of these variants were first identified outside of the United States,” he said. “If the goal is to protect the American people, we need to make sure the world is vaccinated. I mean, there’s just no ‘national only’ approach here.”
His comments came after he and Biden addressed the second global COVID-19 vaccine summit and urged the international community not to wallow in the fight against the pandemic.
Here in the United States, Biden requested $22.5 billion in emergency funding for the virus response in March, but the money has been held back, first by the shock of stickers in Congress and now in the middle wrangling over the expiration of pandemic-era migrant restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Jha said he has been advocating for weeks with lawmakers for additional funding, calling it “very reduced demand” and “the bare minimum we need to get through this fall and winter without much loss of life.”
The Food and Drug Administration is due to meet in June to determine the specific strains of the virus that the fall vaccines will target, and Jha said it takes manufacturers two to three months to develop them. The United States is currently short of federal COVID-19 response funding to place new vaccine orders.
“If we had the resources, we would be here having these conversations today,” Jha said. “The window is really closing on us if we want to be at the front of the line.”
“I would say we are really on that timeline and waiting much longer puts us further back,” he added. “If we’re ready to be in the back of the line and get our shots in the spring, we have plenty of time. But then we will have missed all of fall and winter. This is not an acceptable outcome, I think, for the American people.
Jha, who took over the task of coordinating the federal government’s response to the virus a month ago, called the marking of one million deaths from the US pandemic a “dark” day.
“Each of these tragic deaths, many of which are preventable,” he said.
While acknowledging that “getting to zero is going to be a challenge”, Jha said most deaths from the virus are now preventable, with vaccinations and boosters, and with effective therapeutics, the challenge is often to ensure that are available to people when they need them.
“We have so much capacity and we need to deploy it at top speed and full capacity to make sure no one dies from this disease,” he said.
Jha said there was “no viable alternative” at this time to letting the US government take the lead in securing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, rather than allowing the commercial market to s dealing with supplies as with other medical treatments. He cited the global mismatch between supply and demand.
“We need to ensure that the US government continues to play an active role,” he said. “This role will change over time. But right now it’s still critical.
“One of the things we talked about in Congress is that these tools are great — but only if you have them, only if you can use them,” Jha said. “And without the support of Congress, it can be very difficult to continue to protect the American people.”
On an international topic, he touched on China’s “zero COVID” policy, which has led to dramatic shutdowns in some of China’s biggest cities, disrupting daily life and contributing to global supply chain issues.
“I don’t think that makes sense,” Jha said. He pointed out that the US strategy is “very different,” with a focus on preventing serious illness and death.
“For me, it’s a much more sustainable long-term management strategy,” he said. “I think China is going to have a hard time continuing in the long run.”