WASHINGTON – After a year of relentless efforts to vaccinate Americans, President Joe Biden is spending nearly $ 10 billion on new and experimental Covid-19 treatments that will go a long way to helping those he couldn’t convince.
It is the latest sign that administration officials consider the pandemic far from over, that incidents of groundbreaking cases will continue to pose problems, and that for the unvaccinated, many of whom do not trust or trust. don’t like Biden, they don’t give up. .
This week alone, the Biden administration signed a $ 5.25 billion deal with Pfizer for its experimental pill to treat Covid infections and agreed to pay $ 1 billion for GlaxoSmithKline monoclonal antibody treatment. This comes on top of the multibillion-dollar deals earlier this month with Merck and Eli Lilly for their Covid drugs.
Spending billions of dollars on pills to treat Covid infections is nowhere near what Biden predicted it would be less than six months ago when he called on Americans to “declare our independence from the virus” for ” the summer of freedom “.
Treatments, which have been shown in studies to reduce the risk of hospitalizations and death, would provide the greatest benefit to 1 in 5 Americans who have not been vaccinated and who are most at risk of disease serious. But with vaccine immunity on the decline and only a fraction of those eligible for a booster having received the additional vaccine, the drugs may be increasingly needed by those vaccinated.
“Our vaccines are safe and very effective, but even assuming we can increase vaccination rates and boosters for those most at risk for serious illness, Covid is here to stay,” said Dr Céline Gounder, expert in Infectious Diseases at New York University who advised Biden’s transition.
How the pandemic plays out over the next few months has significant political implications for the White House and Democrats in Congress who have attempted to shift voters’ attention to the recently passed infrastructure bill. White House officials attributed the drop in Biden’s approval rating to Covid fatigue among the public and blamed the rise in inflation on the economic disruption created by the pandemic.
As tens of millions of Americans continue to refuse to be vaccinated, the pills give Biden yet another tool to prevent the pandemic from returning to a point where hospitals are overwhelmed, schools are closed and people are avoiding travel and dine at the restaurant, public health officials said. .
While administration officials say they are still focused on increasing vaccination rates, the deals with Pfizer and Merck will provide enough treatment for 15 million people by the end of next year if their drugs are cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, a decision expected by the end of the year.
The $ 10 billion pledged this month for treatments is in addition to the $ 22.5 billion the United States has spent on vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Biden specifically asked his staff to order twice as much of the Pfizer drug as they expected after seeing how effective it was in the study results released last week, increasing the order to cover 10 million people by the end of 2022, according to a familiar person. with the conversation.
“This is positive news,” the president said Thursday in a statement announcing the deal with Pfizer. “This treatment could prove to be another essential tool in our arsenal that will accelerate our exit from the pandemic. But vaccines remain our most powerful tool.”
Administration officials said they expect the number of cases to increase during the colder months, as people head inside and congregate for the holidays.
And in addition to urging people to get vaccinated, the administration must now also send a message about the reminders. So far, only 36% of older people have received their booster shots, many of whom were the first to get vaccinated and are now the most vulnerable to serious infections.
Even before Americans hit the road for vacation, cases are on the rise and hospitals are reaching capacity. Northeastern states are particularly affected, including highly vaccinated states such as Vermont and New Hampshire, where cases have increased by 60% and 56% respectively.
While unvaccinated people are much more likely to be hospitalized or die, the drugs will likely benefit those who are vaccinated as well. CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday that a decline in vaccine effectiveness among the elderly and residents of long-term care facilities was increasing hospitalizations and emergency room visits among vaccinated seniors. .
“Although the risk is highest for unvaccinated people, we are seeing an increase in emergency room visits among adults 65 and older, which are again higher than for younger age groups,” said she told reporters.
At the same time, a growing number of cities, including Washington, DC, are lifting their mask warrants.
Despite the multi-billion dollar investment in Covid treatments, the drugs present challenges. As with Tamiflu influenza treatment, medications should be given within the first few days of symptom onset, which means people should get test results promptly and receive a prescription from their doctor for the medication.
GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly, although very effective, are given intravenously, so patients will need to go to a hospital or infusion center to receive them.
Pfizer’s treatment will cost $ 529 per patient and Merck’s $ 700 – far less than if a patient is hospitalized, but more expensive than vaccines, which cost the U.S. government around $ 20 to $ 30 each.
Ultimately, Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said the way to stop the pandemic is to stop the spread of the virus – something best done with vaccines.
“While antivirals show promise, we need to make sure we get our people vaccinated,” Fauci said last week. “Antivirals, no matter how good, are not our first line of defense against Covid-19 because we all know that preventing infection is much, much more important than treating it.”