Linking additional COVID-19 funding to Ukrainian relief is disgraceful and unnecessary

Hill Illustration/Madeline Monroe/iStock

Last Wednesday, President Biden’s director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Shalanda Young, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) requesting $22.5 billion in additional COVID-19 response funds alongside a request for $10 billion for Ukrainian humanitarian relief. These requests come in advance of this week’s comprehensive government funding deadline on March 11.

This thinly-veiled missive is a common form of inside-the-beltway political extortion daring fiscally responsible members of Congress to vote against the $22.5 billion bill and to risk being accused of not wanting to support the courageous people of Ukraine. While this is a prima facie case of immoral West Wing behavior, it is all the more alarming because the request for additional COVID funding is being made in the context of enormous waste, remaining funds from prior COVID-related legislation and an obsolescent response strategy. Here is a review of all three.

The Biden administration has squandered COVID response funds. Two clear examples of waste under the Biden administration include the recent procurement of vaccine doses and the distribution of home-administered tests. With regard to the vaccines, the Biden team procured 200 million additional doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine for $24 per dose in July 2021. This equates to $48 dollars per vaccinated individual. A month before this in June 2021, Moderna’s mRNA vaccine was procured for $16.50 per dose, or $33.00 per vaccinated individual. There is no discernible difference in the safety or effectiveness of these two vaccines, yet the federal government chose to spend $1.5 billion, or 45 percent, more than it needed to for the Pfizer doses.

Of course, it could also have procured the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was also deemed safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for $10 per dose and per vaccinated individual, saving close to 80 percent.

As it relates to home testing kits, the first shipments of COVID antigen tests sent to any American household desiring one to combat the omicron strain arrived in American households in early February, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported omicron peaking on Jan. 15. Many Americans who, like me, ordered on the first day of availability still have not received our test kits.

As well, these kits are notoriously inaccurate in terms of producing false positive results, and there is no credible means of collecting the test results for epidemiological purposes. By overreacting too late, the Biden folks wasted another couple of billion dollars.

There is approximately $200 billion of uncommitted COVID-legislated funds still available. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s website, updated last on Feb. 28, there is close to $3 trillion of total uncommitted funds from COVID-related legislation, of which approximately $200 billion falls into the category of health-related spending (e.g., for things such as vaccines, therapeutics and masks rather than items such as payments to states). If the administration needs added flexibility to use these funds for new COVID-response priorities, Congress should consider granting such authority.

Perhaps it should start with the $50 million in unspent dollars having nothing to do with COVID response from Biden’s American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) presently committed to family planning. In any case, it should not legislate another $22.5 billion when close to 10 times that amount from previous legislation is still uncommitted.

If the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s website lags the actual commitment of funds somewhat, then the administration should come clean with a more contemporary accounting of what’s left. My guess is that it still exceeds the $22.5 billion request. 

Biden’s pledge to vaccinate the world against COVID is increasingly obsolescent. Part of the OMB director’s request for the $22.5 billion would be used to “accelerate global vaccination efforts….” But there is growing evidence that much of the developing world has already acquired immunity through some combination of vaccination, infection and recovery.  

If we really want to help the developing world, we should send them the first ever malaria vaccine endorsed in October 2021 by the World Health Organization(WHO).

In 2020, the WHO reported 627,000 fatalities from malaria, 95 percent of which occurred in Africa. According to Reuters’s COVID-19 Tracker, COVID deaths in Africa over a two-year period, at approximately 125,000 a year, are less than 20 percent of annual malaria deaths.

Linking Ukrainian relief and COVID response funding is a disgrace for several reasons. It represents the worst of Washington, D.C., political power moves, a blatant disregard for the Ukrainian people and completely unnecessary pork-related spending at a time when the nation is $30 trillion in debt. Let’s hope that members of Congress and the general public see this request for what it is. 

Paul Mango was deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2019-2021, serving as Secretary Alex Azar’s formal liaison to Operation Warp Speed. His forthcoming book is “Warp Speed: Inside the Operation That Beat COVID, the Critics, and the Odds” (Republic Book Publishers, May 18, 2022).

Tags Biden COVID-19 pandemic in the United States COVID-19 vaccination in the United States Joe Biden johnson & johnson Moderna Nancy Pelosi Office of Budget and Management operation warp speed Pfizer Pfizer–BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Presidency of Joe Biden RNA vaccines Russia-Ukraine conflict Shalanda Young Ukraine

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