America’s attempt to vaccinate the world against Covid is about to come to an end.
“We’re at a point now where, without additional funding, we’re going to have to start reducing our programming,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, leader of the US Agency for International Development’s Covid-19 task force. Such funding does not appear to be forthcoming. Our appallingly dysfunctional politics will lead to more illness and death around the world, and we are increasing the odds that a new viral mutation will once again change American life. If it does, we might call it the filibuster variant.
Even for a body as broken and ineffective as Congress, this level of self-sabotage is hard to fathom. “The biggest risk we face nationally and globally is more new variants,” Konyndyk said. Such variants, he said, are more likely to arise in chronically immunocompromised populations, including people living with diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis; because they have problems eliminating the coronavirus, it takes longer and has more opportunities to evolve.
“That’s probably where Omicron comes from, quite possibly where Delta comes from,” Konyndyk said. “So making sure that we target those populations for vaccination and then targeting them with the launch of antivirals is the best insurance policy we have against new variants. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best we can do.”
But it seems that we are not going to do it. Part of the blame for this lies with House Democrats. Much more belongs to Senate Republicans.
Democrats miscalculated last month when, amid internal dissent, they cut a $15.6 billion Covid relief package from the $1.5 trillion general spending bill. Senate Republicans insisted that the Covid aid come from money that has already been appropriated but not spent. So congressional leaders devised a scheme that siphoned $7 billion out of funds that had been set aside for state and local governments in last year’s American Bailout.
House Democrats, as well as governors of both parties, had good reason to object, because state and local lawmakers had crafted their budgets with that money in mind. Twenty states received their US Bailout money all at once, but in the remaining 30 states it was supposed to come in two tranches. Those states were suddenly looking for substantial budget cuts.
“A bunch of House members said no, we’re not going to vote to cut our own state budgets and we need to come home and explain why we’ve cut these budgets,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. .
After a revolt among her own members, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to withdraw Covid aid from the umbrella bill. But if House Democrats thought they would get another chance to negotiate international Covid funds, they underestimated the GOP’s nihilism.
Due to filibuster, Senate Democrats need 10 Republicans to support a standalone covid bill, and Republicans are resisting more money for international covid programs. “Frankly, I’m struggling,” said Chris Coons, a Democratic senator known for his commitment to bipartisanship, about trying to broker a deal. He describes a basic disagreement among caucuses about the threat posed by covid. Several of his Republican colleagues, Coons said, have told him, “We’re done with this pandemic.”
Since they are largely indifferent to whether additional Covid funding is approved, some Republicans have used it as leverage in their demand for stricter border policies. They are delaying the authorization of none more Covid aid unless the administration reinstates Title 42, a policy adopted in 2020 to quickly expel migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum, all in the name of protecting public health.
USAID funding is not fungible: the agency cannot simply transfer resources from other programs to maintain its vaccine program or start providing antivirals like Paxlovid. As a measure of last resort, Coons tried to get Republicans to agree to give the agency emergency authority to move its own money to address the pandemic, but he couldn’t get enough of it.
As a result of this intransigence, many of the vaccine doses the United States has already donated could be wasted. At this point, there is no longer a global vaccine shortage; The problem is that many countries lack the necessary infrastructure to transport and manage them. The impasse in the Senate, Coons said, means that we are not delivering millions of vaccine injections that we have already paid for.
Coons is hopeful there could be a breakthrough in the Senate in three to four weeks, after he returns from recess. But it’s not easy to restart programs once they’ve stopped, and meanwhile we’re needlessly endangering our own health and the health of people around the planet.
There is also a political cost to abandoning the rest of the world on Covid. At a time of renewed competition between the great powers, effective vaccines from the United States could give us a diplomatic advantage. Last year, Coons said, “both Russia and China made great fanfare about delivering planes full of vaccine to dozens of developing countries. Those vaccines are ineffective against Omicron. Our vaccines are effective.” Our Congress, unfortunately, is not.