US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra unveiled a new push by the Biden administration Tuesday to accelerate its efforts to prevent, detect and treat long Covid.
Long Covid is associated with a host of lingering symptoms from Covid-19 involving multiple body systems. Estimates of the frequency of long-term symptoms and conditions following an acute Covid-19 infection range from 5% to 80%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization’s estimates range from 10% to 20%.
President Joe Biden is issuing a presidential memorandum Tuesday directing Becerra to “coordinate a new effort across the federal government to develop and issue the first-ever interagency national research action plan on Long Covid.”
“HHS will lead a government-wide interagency coordinating council, which will involve experts from the Department of Defense, Veterans Administration, the Labor Department and many entities across government to coordinate both public and private sector work to advance our understanding of long Covid, and to accelerate efforts to prevent, detect and treat it,” Becerra said at Tuesday’s Covid response team briefing.
He continued, “In real time, we will share lessons on how to prevent, detect and treat long Covid. And this coordinated effort will help ensure our research is being directed toward the people who need care the most.”
Becerra also announced other actions to deliver high-quality care for Americans experiencing long Covid, making services and support available for those individuals and advancing the nation’s understanding of long Covid.
The actions will include a $20 million investment through the President’s fiscal year 2023 budget to “investigate how health care systems can best organize and deliver care for people with long Covid, provide telementoring and expert consultation for primary care practices, and advance the development of multispecialty clinics to provide complex care,” a fact sheet from the White House said. The effort will expand and strengthen clinics, promote provider education and bolster health insurance coverage for long Covid care.
The administration is also working to raise awareness of long Covid “as a potential cause of disability” and will ensure that people will have access to call centers that can provide information and support.
The National Research Action Plan on Long Covid, which is part of the presidential memorandum, “will advance our understanding of long Covid, foster the development of new treatments and care models, and inform services, support, and interventions for individuals experiencing long Covid.” There are provisions to accelerate enrollment in the RECOVER Initiative, a $1.15 billion National Institutes of Health initiative announced last year that will conduct studies and clinical trials, among other efforts.
These moves come as bipartisan negotiators, led by GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have reached a deal on additional Covid funding, which would provide $10 billion in aid “paid for by repurposing funds” from the Covid relief package passed last year. The Senate could vote on the package as soon as this week.
The bill includes funding for vaccines and therapeutics, as well as testing capacity and research. But it notably does not include any funding for global Covid response, falling short of the initial $22.5 billion requested by the administration. It also does not replenish the program to test, treat and vaccinate the uninsured.
“We need more for our domestic response: To stay up to date on vaccines, to procure monoclonal antibody treatments and antiviral pills, to provide protection for the immunocompromised, and to sustain our testing capacity. And it is a real disappointment that there’s no global funding in this bill,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said during Tuesday’s briefing.
Without that funding for global Covid aid, Zients warned, “We won’t have resources to help get more shots in arms in countries in need. We will lack funding to provide oxygen and other life-saving supplies. And our global genomic sequencing capabilities will fall off and undermine our ability to detect any emerging variants around the world.”
The US has delivered more than 500 million vaccines to 114 countries, per the White House, with 1.2 billion doses pledged to be donated abroad. Officials have warned of the need to help get those shots into arms through additional funding for assistance. It remains unclear whether and when Congress will act to increase aid for these programs. The doses for 5- to 11-year-olds will be part of the 1.2 billion vaccines the US has pledged to send abroad and will account for “100 million or more,” per Zients.
Zients also announced Tuesday that the US will become the first country to donate “tens of millions of pediatric Covid-19 vaccines to low- and lower-middle income countries for free with no strings attached.”
More than 20 such countries have asked the US for vaccines for children, Zients said.
“We’re now ready to answer their call. It’s the right thing to do. … Getting more people vaccinated is one of the best ways to protect people here at home and around the world. Today, we’re making clear that the US will continue to lead and pioneer the global effort to get both adults and children vaccinated,” Zients said.
In an interview with CNN+ host Chris Wallace, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the lack of funding in the bill for global vaccine was a “big” problem.
“I’m really disappointed in that. Because what you said is absolutely correct. When you’re dealing with a global pandemic, you have to have a global response. It’s folly to think with a global pandemic, you can have a regional response,” Fauci told Wallace.