But months later, it has barely gotten off the ground — thwarted by waning political interest in prolonging a war against a pandemic that even the president has declared “over.” Entangled in deadlock with Republicans over more Covid response money, government has yet to invest heavily in one of its promising vaccines targets it has identified.
The delay has heightened concerns within the White House about Americans’ vulnerability to future variants. More recently, government officials have been alarmed that the US is suddenly following rival China in the global pursuit of: new scientific breakthroughs aimed at reducing Covid.
“The idea of us sitting on the sidelines and watching other countries build this stuff should be totally anathema to us,” Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 response coordinator, told POLITICO. “I see this very much as a biosecurity issue and a pandemic preparedness issue.”
The government’s struggle to create a new Covid vaccine accelerator comes amid an otherwise encouraging period in the search for new weapons to fight the virus. Major companies like Pfizer and Moderna have proven that they can produce variant-specific booster shots in a matter of months.
Other companies and researchers are developing alternative approaches — such as nasal sprays and oral pills — that scientists hope will be more effective at stopping infection. Under ideal circumstances, experts think the next big leap for Covid vaccines could happen as early as 2024.
But current conditions are far from ideal, said more than half a dozen Biden officials and health experts working on the issue. The White House has spent months trying and failing to secure the roughly $8 billion it says it needs from Congress to jump-start Covid Shield and it seems unlikely it will get it by the end of the year – at that point, Republicans could very well take over one or both chambers.
That puts the US behind China and India, both of which have aggressively pushed forward with Covid research and approved the first needle-free Covid vaccines last month. Lacking government help, some US vaccine researchers have sought partnerships with other countries such as Mexico.
Meanwhile, there is little appetite from GOP lawmakers and even some Democrats to stop treating the pandemic as a priority, especially after President Joe Biden’s statement that surprised even his top health officialswho have since gone to great lengths to highlight their Covid response continues rapidly.
And yet warning signs keep piling up. Recent studies suggest that the newest offshoots of the Omicron variant are resistant to Evusheld, the main drug designed to protect immunocompromised people against the virus. Some variants have also shown resistance to a second cocktail of monoclonal antibodies – making the antiviral pill Paxlovid the only major treatment that still works across the board.
“We currently have no other pills in the pipeline,” said Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “We just need different choices no matter what.”
Jha said the rapid evolution of the virus has raised concerns about the lack of lengthy surgery to ensure vaccines and treatments keep pace with the emergence of new variants.
It took almost two years to update the first Covid vaccines. Developing the next generation can take a three to five year wait if there isn’t significant federal funding to speed up the process.
“This is a clear move for the kind of partnership we saw with Operation Warp Speed,” Jha said, adding that the slow progress could put the US in a “very difficult situation” this winter. “Our toolbox is dry because every company in America understands that the US government doesn’t have the money to do this.”
That funding probably won’t come. Opposition from Capitol Hill Republicans has frustrated Biden officials who note that the GOP is openly touting the original $18 billion Warp Speed as a Trump-era success story.
Republican lawmakers and aides refute that the White House made a mistake in shutting down Warp Speed shortly after Biden took office — a decision many of them interpreted as politically motivated and short-sighted. Even now, they said, there is continued government opposition to the revival of the Warp Speed branding for a new Covid vaccine accelerator, fearing it would admit a Trump-era triumph.
While most Republicans are still not convinced that more money should be allocated to anything related to Covid, those who have been open to the Covid Shield concept have labeled the government’s efforts thus far as disorganized and vague. .
sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.), who has spent months talking with federal officials about creating a new Covid accelerator, said he received “mixed messages” from several agencies about the project and still doesn’t have a detailed plan for how the administration will deal with Covid. Shield has in mind. .
While two people involved in the discussions said Covid Shield would likely be a partnership between the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, Jha said no final decisions have been made about its precise structure and where it would be. be housed.
“They still can’t go out and say, ‘Well, this is our plan,'” Burr said. “All I’m trying to force them to do is set those parameters so we can write good policies and let their agencies make good decisions.”
Jha argued that the government needs a funding commitment before it can iron out all the details, and that the White House has spent months trying to resolve lawmakers’ concerns — including offering to reduce its broader $23 billion Covid funding request to only $8 billion if it’d pave a path to passage. He and other top officials also said they are open to revive the Warp Speed name, if that meant getting the funding you needed.
“I think everyone wants to do a Warp Speed. I really think we should use that word,” said Matthew Hepburn, senior adviser to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “A reasonable amount of government investment could probably catalyze that whole effort to get it across the finish line.”
Still, the White House has yet to get close to the 10 Republican votes needed to allocate more funding as part of a year-end bill.
It’s a stalemate that has failed Covid researchers. Health experts said the industry’s profit incentives are shifting away from finding better vaccines and treatments as the US tries to normalize life with current levels of the disease. Without a financial push from the federal government, the next generation of pandemic resources could go a long way.
“It’s an incredible American science success story — nobody else did what we did, and we have the ability to make it even better,” said Lawrence Corey, a noted virologist who worked on the Warp Speed program, of the first vaccine sprint. “Losing this momentum is a long-term loss to public health, to the medical care system and, I think, to American science.”