America’s attempt to vaccinate the world against COVID is about to come to an end.
“We are at a point now where without additional funding we are going to have to start winding down our programming,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, the leader of the United States Agency for International Development’s COVID-19 task force. Such funding does not appear to be forthcoming. Our gruesomely dysfunctional politics are going to lead to more illness and death across the globe, and we’re increasing the odds that a new viral mutation will once again upend American life. If it does, we might call it the filibuster variant.
Even for a body as broken and ineffectual as Congress, this level of self-sabotage is hard to fathom. “The biggest risk we face domestically and globally is more new variants,” said Mr. Konyndyk. Such variants, he said, are most likely to emerge in chronically immunocompromised populations, including people living with diseases like HIV and tuberculosis; because they have trouble clearing the coronavirus, it lingers and has more opportunities to evolve.
“That’s likely where omicron came from, quite possibly where delta came from,” Mr. Konyndyk said. “So making sure that we are targeting those populations for vaccination and then targeting them with the rollout 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 we are not going to do it. Part of the blame for this lies with House Democrats. Far more belongs to Senate Republicans.
The Democrats miscalculated last month when, amid internal dissension, they stripped a $15.6 billion COVID aid package from the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill. Senate Republicans had insisted that the COVID aid come from money that was already appropriated but unspent. So congressional leaders devised a scheme drawing $7 billion from funds that had been set aside for state and local governments in last year’s American Rescue Plan.
House Democrats — as well as governors in both parties — had good reason to object, because state and local lawmakers had made their budgets with that money in mind. Twenty states got their American Rescue Plan money all at once, but in the remaining 30 states it was supposed to come in two tranches. Those states were suddenly looking at substantial budget cuts.
“A bunch of House members said no, we’re not going to vote to cut our own state budgets and have to go 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, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to pull the COVID aid from the omnibus bill. But if House Democrats thought they would get another chance to negotiate international COVID funds, they underestimated the nihilism of the Republican Party.
Because of the filibuster, Senate Democrats need 10 Republicans to support a stand-alone COVID bill, and Republicans are balking at more money for international COVID programs. “I’m frankly struggling,” Chris Coons, a Democratic senator known for his commitment to bipartisanship, said of trying to negotiate an agreement. He describes a basic disagreement between the caucuses over the threat posed by COVID. A number of his Republican colleagues, said Coons, have told him, “We’re done with this pandemic.”
Since they are largely indifferent to whether additional COVID funding passes, some Republicans have used it as leverage in their demand for tougher border policies. They are holding up authorization of any more COVID aid unless the administration reinstates Title 42, a policy adopted in 2020 to rapidly expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum, all in the name of protecting public health.
The USAID funding is not fungible — the agency can’t simply transfer resources from other programs to keep its vaccine program going, or to start providing antivirals like Paxlovid. As a last-ditch measure, Mr. Coons tried to get Republicans to agree to give the agency emergency authority to move its own money around to address the pandemic, but he couldn’t get enough of them onboard.
As a result of this intransigence, many of the vaccine doses America already donated could go to waste. At this point, there’s no longer a global vaccine shortage — the problem is that many countries lack the infrastructure required to transport and administer them. The impasse in the Senate, Mr. Coons said, means we aren’t delivering millions of vaccine shots that we have already paid for.
Mr. Coons holds out hope that there could be a breakthrough in the Senate in three or four weeks, after it returns from recess. But it’s not easy to restart programs once they have been stopped, and in the meantime, we are pointlessly imperiling both our own health and the health of people all over the planet.
There’s also a political cost to abandoning the rest of the world on COVID. At a time of renewed great-power competition, America’s effective vaccines could give us a diplomatic advantage. Last year, said Mr. Coons, “both Russia and China made big fanfares about delivering planeloads of vaccines to dozens of countries in the developing world. Those vaccines are ineffective against omicron. Our vaccines are effective.” Our Congress, unfortunately, is not.
Michelle Goldberg (Twitter: @michelleinbklyn) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.