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GOP, Democratic relief packages $16B apart on vaccine funding

GOP, Democratic relief packages $16B apart on vaccine funding
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Two competing coronavirus relief packages on Capitol Hill underscore differing GOP and Democratic funding priorities for vaccine development and COVID-19 testing.

The Senate GOP measure released this week includes roughly $16 billion more for vaccine development than the House-passed HEROES Act, but falls far short of the Democratic proposal for testing and contract tracing funds.

The GOP measure includes $20 billion for “vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic development” through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and $6 billion for vaccine distribution through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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That amount far exceeds the $4.5 billion allocated to BARDA for vaccines and therapeutics in the HEROES Act, though Senate Democrats released a white paper July 13 calling for the next relief bill to include $25 billion toward “additional research and development, manufacturing, purchase, distribution, and administration of COVID-19 vaccines.”

When it comes to testing and contact tracing, the HEROES Act includes $75 billion, while the GOP proposal contains only $16 billion for similar programs in states.

The final amount is still being negotiated by White House officials and Democratic leaders, but the latest indication is that both sides are far apart on reaching a deal on the competing measures.

The initial bargaining position by Senate Republicans — exceeding Democrats’ demands on vaccines, but falling far short on testing — appears to reflect the Trump administration’s focus on vaccine development over increased testing.

Trump has repeatedly vowed that a vaccine will be available by the end of the year, while pushing back against increased testing, claiming it results in more cases.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Congress faces late-year logjam The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Barr splits with Trump on election; pardon controversy MORE (R-Mo.) highlighted the Republican proposal for vaccine development in a statement Monday.

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“House Democrats have put forward an unserious proposal loaded with unnecessary and unrelated spending and policy provisions,” Blunt said. “At the same time, they’ve provided less than this proposal for critical needs like child care and vaccine development, manufacturing, and distribution.”

Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot National reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee who authored the white paper on vaccine funding, hit back by criticizing the lack of a national vaccine distribution and tracing and testing plan in the GOP measure.

“The Republican bill fails to demand the comprehensive, end-to-end plan from the Administration we urgently need for developing a safe, effective, free and widely available vaccine, and won’t help our lagging testing and contact tracing get to where we need them,” she said. 

Crystal Watson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that while developing a vaccine should be the government’s “top priority,” not developing a national plan for testing and contact tracing in conjunction could cost lives and hold back a full economic recovery.

“In places where we’re not testing enough, we’re not doing contract tracing, we’re just not stemming the spread of the virus through public health measures — people are going to lose their lives unnecessarily,” Watson told The Hill on Wednesday. “We will continue to see these big epidemics if we don’t have some sort of more national initiative with funding and support for these programs.”

She said it is critical that the White House leads a national call to action on testing and contract tracing, and Congress provides the funds to support it.

Congress has sharply increased funding to the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which includes BARDA, in response to past epidemics, though never to the level in the GOP proposal.

In June 2009, Congress approved $7.65 billion to HHS for its response to the swine flu pandemic, though the funding was not specifically earmarked for BARDA, which was only three years old at the time.

In September 2014, Congress appropriated $58 million to BARDA for research and development of therapeutics and vaccines for Ebola.

The $20 billion GOP funding proposal for BARDA, which invests in medical treatments for emerging diseases and bioterrorism, would eclipse the small agency’s annual budget by nearly a factor of 13.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, BARDA’s budget for fiscal 2020 was set at roughly $1.55 billion, which remained steady from the previous year. Its 2018 budget sat at just under $1.5 billion.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed into law on March 27 allocated an additional $3.5 billion to the agency for production and purchase of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

Much of the BARDA funding under the GOP proposal would likely go to biotechnology companies working on vaccine development in conjunction with the administration’s "Operation Warp Speed" program, which aims to make a vaccine available as quickly as possible.

Moderna announced Sunday it had received $472 million more from BARDA to launch the third phase of its vaccine candidate, in addition to the $483 million it already received from the agency.

The agency entered the spotlight earlier in the pandemic when its director, Rick Bright, alleged he was demoted for pushing back against the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the virus and that his early warnings about the virus were met with indifference.