CDC tells Congress it urgently needs $6 billion for vaccine distribution

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it needs $6 billion that it does not currently have in order to distribute a coronavirus vaccine, highlighting a new hurdle in a massive logistical undertaking. 

The agency had previously privately informed Congress of the need for more funds, according to congressional aides, but CDC Director Robert Redfield made the request public for the first time at a Senate hearing on Wednesday, calling it “urgent.”

“Right now we’ve leveraged about $600 million, but we do not have the resources to support 64 jurisdictions to get this plan operational, so to me it’s an urgency,” Redfield said. 

“The time is now for us to be able to get those resources out to the state, and we currently don’t have those resources,” he added. 

The need for vaccine distribution funding raises the stakes for Congress to come together on a broader coronavirus deal. While both parties support the vaccine funding, there is no clear path for enacting it outside of a larger deal, which has been stalled for months. 

“If you have the vaccine and don’t have either the plan or the resources to distribute it, that’s a huge failure on the part of the Congress to provide the resources that we know are going to be necessary,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate panel that funds health care, said in response to Redfield. “I hope it’s part of whatever package we put together this very month to be sure you have the capacity to do that.”

He noted that the coronavirus package that the Senate voted on last week, and which was blocked by Democrats for being too small, included the $6 billion for vaccine distribution, as well as an additional $20 billion that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says it needs for further vaccine manufacturing and development. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week also pointed to vaccine funding in pressuring Democrats to support the GOP bill. “They’re going to vote against finding and distributing vaccines because they are afraid the breakthrough that our nation is praying for might possibly help President Trump?” McConnell said on the Senate floor. 

Democrats say they support additional funding for a vaccine. “Given that the Senate has not begun its appropriations process, we support inclusion of this funding in a supplemental coronavirus appropriations bill,” said a House Democratic aide. 

But the broader negotiations on a coronavirus package to carry the funding are still deadlocked. Democratic leaders say the GOP bill voted on last week was “emaciated” and lacked needed funding for areas like state and local governments, food aid and rental assistance. 

Asked about the vaccine funding, Henry Connelly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said there are a range of priorities that Republicans are refusing to adequately fund. 

“Millions of kids are food insecure, families are facing eviction, schools can’t reopen safely, more money is desperately needed for testing, tracing and vaccines, there’s crisis everywhere you look because Republicans are refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation facing America and pass a bill that meets these needs,” Connelly said. “There are massive, urgent needs that have to be met as soon as possible, and Republicans need to stop focusing on doing as little as possible so we can reach an agreement on a bill that will address the health and economic crises gripping our nation.”

A Senate GOP aide said that based on lawmaker and staff discussions with HHS, the $6 billion would be used for “all parts of the distribution process cold-chain supply (including buying freezers); all the logistics of physically moving the vaccine from manufacturing facilities to states down to pharmacies, or mobile units, or a personal physician,” as well as “establishing distribution centers.”

Two of the leading vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, require storage at sub-zero temperatures, making buying sufficient freezers a key concern.

The Trump administration released a distribution plan on Wednesday that relies heavily on states, who will choose the vaccination sites in their area. 

But the plan also requires money. 

“This is a very ambitious endeavor to roll out and vaccinate hundreds of millions of people,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “States are going to need resources to do that.”

Being able to store the vaccines at the right temperature, in particular, “could be challenging,” he said. 

The proper cold storage “requires the states to invest in such capacity,” said Prashant Yadav, a health supply chain expert at the Center for Global Development. Or as an alternative, he said, the federal government would have to make precise shipments of vaccine every day from its storage areas out to the vaccination sites. 

“That is a humongous effort,” he said. “It’s like taking an Amazon Prime delivery model for a vaccine.”

Another question is whether there will be enough vials, needles and syringes to administer the vaccine. 

Blunt also said at Wednesday’s hearing that “HHS has told us that to have 300 million copies of vaccine available, they need another $20 billion that they don’t have in any specifically appropriated line.”

HHS Assistant Secretary Robert Kadlec replied that he agreed that $20 billion more is needed, though he did not elaborate. 

A Senate GOP aide said the money would be used to “continue to develop and manufacture vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics.”

Plescia, of the state health officials group, said his organization is hoping Congress reaches a deal. 

“We’re all kind of banking on the fact that they’ll come together on this, especially if it’s funding purely for vaccine administration and delivery,” he said. “They don’t really want to be the stumbling block.” 

Tags CDC CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 Donald Trump FDA Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt

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