The Biden administration is requesting $27 billion to combat monkeypox and COVID-19 as part of a stopgap spending bill to fund the government past the end of fiscal year 2022, which ends Sept. 30. Senate Republicans are signaling skepticism and resistance, news organizations report.
The total amount has been requested in increments of $22.4 billion and $3.9 billion for COVID-19 and monkeypox respectively, to be spent on domestic efforts, and another $600 million to curb the global spread of monkeypox.
Congress must sign off on continuing funding in order to avoid a government shutdown, and the administration is asking for certain “critical needs” to be included in a short-term continuing resolution bill that would extend funding through at least part of December. Appropriations for the remaining three quarters of fiscal year 2023 would then be left for Republicans and Democrats to hash out in the lame-duck session following the November midterms.
The White House is asking for $47 billion in total funding to be added to the stopgap bill, with the remaining $30 billion earmarked for aid to Ukraine, addressing effects of the war on domestic energy supply, and providing relief for some areas of the U.S. recently impacted by natural disasters such as Kentucky, hit with major flooding in July.
The failure of past efforts by Democrats to secure more COVID-19 funding indicates prospects are grim for the present attempt. What started out as a bipartisan effort to allocate additional funds in March was ultimately scrapped due to partisan squabbling over a controversial immigration policy enacted by the Biden administration. Some legislative aides have said that aid for Ukraine and domestic disaster relief are the most likely items to wind up in the final version of the short-term spending bill.
Although some Republican members of Congress have criticized the administration’s monkeypox response for its alleged sluggishness, confusing messaging, and lack of transparency, they are less than enthusiastic about the request for additional funding to fight the disease. Nearly all Republican members have condemned what they call the “massive” spending authorized under the Inflation Reduction Act and are loath to grant more. Others claim that unspent COVID-19 response funds can be re-appropriated to meet current needs.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold a hearing on Sept. 14 to examine federal response to the monkeypox outbreak. In late August, Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to Dawn O’Connell, head of the HHS Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response and a key player on the federal monkeypox response team, raising concerns about previous efforts and ongoing strategy to combat the virus.
Murray wrote, “The administration must do more to address existing, unacceptable shortages in vaccine supply, institute comprehensive distribution and communication strategies, and develop long-term procurement plans.” O’Connell is slated to testify at the hearing, along with other top officials from the CDC and FDA who have jointly led efforts to contain the virus.
Democrats and the White House have argued that the COVID-19 and monkeypox funds requested are necessary to facilitate vaccine distribution and combat future surges. According to a White House blog post released on Sept. 2, “The lack of additional funding has prevented us from adequately replenishing our national stockpile of at-home [COVID-19] tests, forced us to suspend sending free tests to Americans, and leaves our domestic testing capacity diminished for a potential fall surge.”
Funds for monkeypox are similarly needed “to help ensure ready access to vaccinations, testing, treatment, and operational support for the American people,” the blog post said.
On Sept. 6, HHS announced it will award drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen with a nearly $20 million contract to significantly expand the number of weekly shipments and local distribution sites for monkeypox vaccines and treatments nationwide.
“We continue to do everything we can to make the vaccine and therapeutics needed to respond to monkeypox available to jurisdictions as quickly as possible,” said O’Connell in an HHS news release. “Today’s announcement is the result of our real-time and ongoing conversations with states and jurisdictions aimed at improving the national response. This new commercial contract will help deliver vaccines and treatments to communities and at-risk individuals more quickly and bring us a step closer to ending the current outbreak,” O’Connell said.
Monkeypox surfaced in the U.S. in mid-May, with cases now exceeding 20,000. The virus is characterized by painful lesions on the skin along with other flu-like symptoms, and spreads via close physical contact. The population primarily affected so far has been men who have sex with men, who have been prioritized for vaccine distribution and eligibility. Per CDC guidelines, those eligible for the vaccine should have either been exposed or have high risk for exposure.
The administration’s response team has said it will provide additional doses of monkeypox vaccine and support for testing and prevention to localities planning to host large events aimed at LGBTQI+ individuals in early September. These events include Southern Decadence in New Orleans, La.; Black Pride in Atlanta, Ga.; and Pride and Pridefest in Oakland, Calif.