Over the last two years, the United States has made extraordinary progress in the fight against Covid-19. That progress is now threatened by Congress’s failure to fund the continuing Covid-19 response effort. The federal government is running out of funds to provide Americans, especially those who are uninsured, with Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Our efforts to sustain other critical elements of the public health response, from Covid-19 surveillance to the global vaccination campaign, are also now at risk.
If adequate funding is provided, our country will be in a position of strength, well situated to manage Covid-19 and to adapt our response as future variants emerge. If the funding does not materialize, we will find ourselves in a far weaker position, struggling to keep up with a constantly evolving virus that will continue to threaten our health, our economy and our peace of mind.
In our current roles as U.S. surgeon general and chief science officer for the U.S. Covid-19 Response, we have helped coordinate the United States’ fight against the coronavirus. Until recently, we’ve had the funding to make sure that there will be enough vaccines and antiviral drugs to meet the nation’s needs. Now, for the first time, we cannot order enough vaccines to provide boosters for all Americans if a fourth dose is deemed necessary in the fall. If we need variant-specific vaccines, we will not have the funds to secure them, deliver them or administer them.
Last week, we were forced to cut our shipments of lifesaving monoclonal antibodies to states by 35 percent — and we anticipate running out of monoclonal antibodies later this spring. We will not be able to continue making home tests available, and the critical surveillance efforts that help us anticipate new waves and variants will be compromised.
When it comes to funding, timing matters. Manufacturers cannot turn the production of vaccines, treatments and tests on and off like a switch. Purchases have to be made months in advance if we want supplies to be available when we need them.
Questions surrounding the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as vaccines and treatments.
This is precisely why we cannot wait for another crisis for Congress to make sustained pandemic response funding available. Surges and variants are hard to predict, but the American people expect us to be prepared.
Failing to provide adequate resources for the continued pandemic response means we will also compromise our efforts to procure more advanced vaccines and therapies, which we need to stay ahead of the virus and to protect the most vulnerable. We cannot forget that the virus is evolving, and our response and our tools must continue to evolve as well. That takes continued focus, investment and action.
There are two paths we can take as a nation. If we provide the necessary funding for a sustained public health response, then effective tests, vaccines, boosters and treatments can remain readily available and will help protect the vast majority of Americans from the worst outcomes of Covid-19: severe illness, hospitalization and death. We will also be able to procure next-generation vaccines and therapies that provide strong, durable protection as the virus evolves.
Robust surveillance, allowing us to detect new variants and hot spots in advance, will in turn enable us to deploy assistance quickly to where it is needed. We can accelerate our efforts to vaccinate the world and sustain the humanitarian aid we are providing countries that are struggling with Covid-19. Americans can have greater confidence that we are shifting from a phase where the virus defined our lives to one where we can manage the virus and move forward.
But if that funding is not provided, then we risk backsliding. We won’t be prepared to update and produce vaccines if new, more contagious and more deadly variants emerge. We won’t be able to develop new and more potent antivirals to overcome the viral resistance that could develop with time. More Americans could experience serious illness, leading not only to preventable loss of life but also to overwhelmed hospitals and burned-out health workers, which will reduce access to health care. Health disparities could worsen as lifesaving tools move farther out of reach for the economically disadvantaged and communities of color, reversing important progress that has been made to narrow these gaps during the Covid-19 response.
It took hard work from world-class scientists and the bipartisan support of Congress under two administrations for the United States to develop lifesaving vaccines and antiviral treatments, along with rapid home tests and high-quality masks, and make them available free to the public. Hundreds of millions of individuals have chosen to use these tools. We cannot take these tools for granted.
During our years of public service, under Republican and Democratic presidents, both of us have stood at similar forks in the road when dealing with the H.I.V., Ebola and Zika epidemics. We know how hard it is to continue putting resources, attention and time into a public health crisis, especially when other critical issues beckon.
But history has demonstrated that when we fail to make the necessary investments during a public health crisis, our initial success is not sustained, and we become vulnerable once again. We pay the price in human suffering and lives lost. And we end up damaging public trust in government’s ability to protect Americans from public health threats.
It would be a grave mistake to assume Covid-19 no longer requires our action and investment. The virus has not disappeared. As we have seen repeatedly over the last two years, periods of declining cases have been followed by waves of increases. And while we cannot predict exactly when cases will rise again, the increase in cases we are seeing in Europe should serve as a reminder that being prepared for future waves is imperative.
After two years of pain, loss and grief, we all want to safely move forward with our lives. The good news is that we have more tools to do so than ever before. The question is: Will we act to ensure that these protections are available to all who need them when they need them? The answer depends on whether Congress chooses to sustain funding for the Covid-19 response. We hope they do, because the virus has not quit — and neither should we.
Vivek Murthy was the 19th and is the 21st U.S. surgeon general. David Kessler is the chief science officer for the U.S. Covid-19 Response Team. He was the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997.
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