Home Web system Subsidized COVID tests, treatments and vaccines may end soon

Subsidized COVID tests, treatments and vaccines may end soon

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March 23, 2022 – The federal government will begin this week to reduce the COVID-19 antibody treatments it ships to states, and doctors will no longer be paid to provide COVID-19 care to uninsured people, as the country is running out of cash to buy crucial tests, treatments and vaccines needed to control the pandemic.

The White House had previously warned that without an additional $22.5 billion in immediate emergency funding, its fight against COVID-19 would be severely hampered. But Congress has been unable to agree on whether or how to come up with the money to pay for dwindling supplies of COVID-19 tests, therapies and vaccines.

The inaction has caused the Biden administration and public health officials to raise their arms in frustration and fear that the United States is more than likely unprepared for the next wave of infections. And that means Americans — who have come to rely on free or mostly free tests, drugs and vaccines — may soon have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars out of pocket to fight the virus.

“We’re really, really concerned about this because we’ve finally gotten to a place where we’re much more optimistic and better prepared to move forward,” says Marcus Plescia, MD, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health officials. “This funding issue could really undermine all of that,” he says. “They have to settle this.”

He says the federal government has informed state officials that starting this week, it will reduce shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments by more than 30%. State health departments are the main distribution point for antibody therapies.

Sotrovimab is the most commonly used antibody therapy, as it is the only antibody therapy effective against the Omicron variant. The United States purchased $1 billion worth of sotrovimab in November and purchased an additional 600,000 doses in January.

The United States has the ability to buy more, but can’t without more funding, which means other countries with the money will follow, Plescia says.

Antibody therapies have always presented challenges – from getting them to people at the right time, to setting up infusion centers – and now most don’t work against Omicron. But those challenges have “been mitigated by the fact that we have these incredible, very powerful antivirals,” says Plescia.

These include Paxlovid, Evusheld and molnupiravir. But the White House has said that without more funding, the government won’t be able to buy any more pills beyond the 20 million it already has.

The federal government also planned to make a specific purchase of Evusheld on March 31 to make it available to people with compromised immune systems to prevent COVID-19. It takes at least 6 months to make the drug, so if the purchase doesn’t go through, it means there won’t be enough later this year for those most vulnerable to infection, said the White House.

All antivirals, which must be taken for several days, cost between $500 and $700 per course, according to GoodRx.

The White House has also said it won’t have enough money to buy boosters — a fourth COVID-19 vaccine — for all Americans, if the CDC recommends another vaccine. Pfizer is seeking FDA approval for a fourth vaccine for Americans over 65, and Moderna is seeking it for all adults.

An FDA advisory committee will meet on April 6 to weigh the pros and cons of a fourth recall.

Meanwhile, other countries have started offering a fourth vaccine, raising the possibility that the United States will fall behind to be able to purchase more doses. Drug manufacturers produce vaccines in response to purchasing contracts.

The federal government has also subsidized the manufacture of COVID-19 tests. Without more funding, that effort will end in June, meaning a potential shortage by the second half of the year, the White House said.

Starting Tuesday, the federal government also stopped accepting claims from doctors and other medical providers seeking reimbursement for tests and treatments they provide to uninsured patients. And on April 5, the program will stop accepting claims from physicians requesting coverage for the administration of vaccines.

Doctors are seen as key to persuading more Americans to get vaccinated because they are the most trusted, Plescia says. The White House has said doctors are likely to turn away uninsured people or be forced to absorb the cost, which is not a good outcome.

Finally, the White House said it would not be able to continue adequate surveillance of emerging variants or invest in vaccines designed to work against specific variants. And it will have to reduce its purchases of vaccines for the less wealthy countries. Global under-vaccination has contributed to the appearance of new variants.

“Until the virus is no longer circulating around the world, it will be a continuous cycle of these potential variants,” Plescia says, adding that the United States must continue to spend to prepare.

“It would be foolish to simply anticipate that this is the end of any further outbreak of the pandemic, because that puts us in a position of not being able to react if that happens,” he says.