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Now is not the time for the U.S. Congress to cut international COVID-19 funding, says Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, JD, because we’re so close to “crushing” COVID-19 this year.
A Senate deal announced April 4 allocated $10 billion to a coronavirus aid package that continues funding for vaccination, treatment, and testing in the United States. But the package did not include an additional $5 billion to fund international COVID-19 vaccinations.
“The United States has long been a strong supporter of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said at an April 7 joint HHS/WHO briefing in honor of World Health Day.
“We continue to look to the U.S. for its support to end the pandemic globally, and to address the many other challenges to health we face,” he said.
More Money Needed
Becerra sees Congress’s move as short-sighted. “Our fight is not over. While we are grateful for the Senate’s latest work on a $10 billion bipartisan plan to help meet some of the country’s COVID needs significantly, more is needed to fund both our domestic response and our global response.”
Without global funding, Becerra said, the U.S. Agency for International Development will not have resources “to get more shots in arms around the world. We will be forced to scale back our work providing oxygen and antiviral pills to others in need. We will lack the funding to provide rapid testing to countries in need at every turn.”
Helping all countries reach the WHO goal of vaccinating at least 70% of their populations “is in the interest of the United States itself,” Tedros said.
On a rare visit to Washington, DC, for World Health Day, he said: “I am painfully aware that the pandemic has taken a heavy toll here in the U.S. I offer my deep condolences to all Americans who have lost someone they love.”
Tedros also acknowledged the sacrifices and risks taken by front-line health care workers. “And I offer my deep appreciation and respect to every health worker who has put themselves in harm’s way to serve others in the course of the pandemic.”
A Choice Can Be Made
Becerra and Tedros remain optimistic that Congress will act to fund global COVID-19 efforts.
“I know how difficult sometimes it can be to pass critical legislation, but we can make a choice. We can – as I heard one member of Congress say yesterday – crush COVID and finish the job that we seemed to be getting close to doing,” Becerra said. “Or we can let it surge back.”
“And I think everyone understands what it means if COVID surges back or some new variant comes around.”
In response to a journalist’s question, Tedros agreed that vaccination numbers remain low in many regions. As an example, 83% of people in Africa still are not vaccinated, he said.
“We’re on the 1-yard line, ready to score the touchdown,” Becerra said. “Let’s just crush COVID and pull the team off the field.”
Asked how he would respond if Congress does not restore the funding, Becerra said, “Failure is not an option. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to lockdowns and watching their loved ones pass, and not being able to be with them when they’re in their greatest need.”
“We can’t go back to that.”
World Health Day media briefing, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, April 7, 2022.
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.