The AP Interview: US ‘vulnerable’ to COVID without new shots 

By ZEKE MILLER-As­so­ci­at­ed Press 


WASH­ING­TON (AP) — White House COVID-19 co­or­di­na­tor Dr. Ashish Jha has is­sued a dire warn­ing that the U.S. will be in­creas­ing­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the coro­n­avirus this fall and win­ter if Con­gress doesn’t swift­ly ap­prove new fund­ing for more vac­cines and treat­ments. 

In an As­so­ci­at­ed Press in­ter­view Thurs­day, Jha said Amer­i­cans’ im­mune pro­tec­tion from the virus is wan­ing, the virus is adapt­ing to be more con­ta­gious and boost­er dos­es for most peo­ple will be nec­es­sary — with the po­ten­tial for en­hanced pro­tec­tion from a new gen­er­a­tion of shots. 

His warn­ing came as the White House said there could be up to 100 mil­lion in­fec­tions from the virus lat­er this year — and as Pres­i­dent Joe Biden somber­ly or­dered flags to half-staff to mark 1 mil­lion deaths. 

“As we get to the fall, we are all go­ing to have a lot more vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to a virus that has a lot more im­mune es­cape than even it does to­day and cer­tain­ly than it did six months ago,” Jha said. “That leaves a lot of us vul­ner­a­ble.” 

Jha pre­dict­ed that the next gen­er­a­tion of vac­cines, which are like­ly to be tar­get­ed at the cur­rent­ly pre­vail­ing omi­cron strain, “are go­ing to pro­vide a much, much high­er de­gree of pro­tec­tion against the virus that we will en­counter in the fall and win­ter.” But he warned that the U.S. is at risk of los­ing its place in line to oth­er coun­tries if Con­gress doesn’t act in the next sev­er­al weeks. 

Speak­ing of a need to pro­vide vac­ci­na­tion as­sis­tance to oth­er na­tions, Jha cast the ur­gency in terms of the ben­e­fits to Amer­i­cans, even if they nev­er trav­el over­seas. 

“All of these vari­ants were first iden­ti­fied out­side of the Unit­ed States,” he said. “If the goal is to pro­tect the Amer­i­can peo­ple, we have got to make sure the world is vac­ci­nat­ed. I mean, there’s just no ‘do­mes­tic-on­ly’ ap­proach here.” 

His com­ments came af­ter he and Biden ad­dressed the sec­ond glob­al COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tion sum­mit and pressed for the in­ter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty not to get com­pla­cent in ad­dress­ing the pan­dem­ic. 

Here in the U.S., Biden re­quest­ed $22.5 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing for the virus re­sponse in March, but the mon­ey has been held up, first by stick­er-shock in Con­gress and now amid wran­gling over ex­pir­ing pan­dem­ic-era mi­grant re­stric­tions at the U.S.-Mex­i­co bor­der. 

Jha said he’s been mak­ing the case to law­mak­ers for ad­di­tion­al fund­ing for weeks, call­ing it a “very pared down re­quest” and “the bare min­i­mum that we need to get through this fall and win­ter with­out large loss of life.” 

The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion is to meet in June to de­ter­mine the spe­cif­ic strains of the virus that the fall vac­cines will tar­get, and Jha said it takes two to three months for man­u­fac­tur­ers to de­vel­op them. Right now the U.S. has run out of fed­er­al COVID-19 re­sponse fund­ing to place new or­ders of vac­cines. 

“If we had the re­sources we’d be there hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions to­day,” said Jha. “The win­dow is re­al­ly clos­ing on us if we want to be in the front of the line.” 

“I would say we’re re­al­ly kind of at that dead­line and wait­ing much longer just puts us fur­ther back of the line,” he added. “If we’re will­ing to be in the back of the line and get our vac­cines in the spring, we have plen­ty of time. But then we’ll have missed the en­tire fall and win­ter. That’s not an ac­cept­able out­come, I think, for the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” 

Jha, who took over the job of co­or­di­nat­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the virus a month ago, called the mark­ing of 1 mil­lion Amer­i­can pan­dem­ic deaths a “somber” day. 

“Every one of those deaths trag­ic, so many of them pre­ventable,” he said. 

While ac­knowl­edg­ing that “get­ting to ze­ro is go­ing to be a chal­lenge,” Jha said most deaths from the virus now are pre­ventable, with vac­ci­na­tions and boost­ers, and with ef­fec­tive ther­a­peu­tics, The chal­lenge is of­ten mak­ing sure that they are avail­able to peo­ple when they need them. 

“We have so many ca­pa­bil­i­ties and we’ve got to de­ploy them at full speed and at full ca­pac­i­ty to make sure that no­body dies from this dis­ease,” he said. 

Jha said there is “no vi­able al­ter­na­tive path” right now than to have the U.S. gov­ern­ment take the lead in se­cur­ing COVID-19 vac­cines and treat­ments, rather than al­low­ing the com­mer­cial mar­ket deal with pro­cure­ment as with oth­er med­ical treat­ments. He cit­ed the glob­al mis­match be­tween sup­ply and de­mand. 

“We have to have the US gov­ern­ment still play­ing an ac­tive role,” he said. “That role will change over time. But right now that’s still crit­i­cal.” 

“One of the things that we’ve been talk­ing to Con­gress about is these tools are great — but on­ly if you have them, on­ly if you can use them,” Jha said. “And with­out sup­port from Con­gress it can be very hard to con­tin­ue to pro­tect the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” 

On an in­ter­na­tion­al sub­ject, he ad­dressed Chi­na’s “ze­ro COVID” pol­i­cy, which has led to dra­mat­ic lock­downs in some of Chi­na’s largest cities, dis­rupt­ing every­day life and con­tribut­ing to glob­al sup­ply chain is­sues. 

“I don’t think it makes sense,” Jha said. He em­pha­sized that U.S. strat­e­gy is “very dif­fer­ent,” with a fo­cus on pre­vent­ing se­ri­ous ill­ness and death. 

“To me, that is a much more sus­tain­able long-form man­age­ment strat­e­gy,” he said. “I think Chi­na’s go­ing to find it hard to con­tin­ue this for the long haul.” 



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