The supply of free treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 purchased by the federal government could end as soon as this summer, the White House’s top pandemic official said Thursday, as the Biden administration prepares to transition the medicines to the private market.
“All I can say, because I literally don’t know, we don’t have the specific dates, is that it’s going to happen sometime over the summer into early fall. And you’ll see that transition and we’ll kind of give people as much notice as we can possibly give,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 Response Coordinator, told a webinar hosted by the University of California San Francisco.
His timeline echoes the one recently laid out by Pfizer executives. The company told shareholders this week they predicted to be able to begin selling their Comirnaty COVID vaccine and Paxlovid pills “at commercial prices” to Americans through the private market in the second half of this year.
Federal officials have long warned that they would likely run out of government-bought supplies of COVID-19 vaccines and drugs this year, after Congress failed to pass a White House’s funding request to replenish their stocks. The White House reshuffled funds last year to buy a final tranche of the updated “bivalent” booster shots.
Many of the original so-called “monovalent” vaccines purchased earlier in the pandemic from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have already been expiring. State health authorities have also told vaccinators that distribution of the Novavax vaccine will be shut off nationwide this month, ahead of the expected end of the shelf life for all of those government-bought vials.
Jha said most Americans would continue to be able to get COVID-19 vaccines for free, similar to how they get other routine shots, under coverage guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.
For treatments, the Biden administration is aiming to persuade drug companies and health insurers to curb out-of-pocket expenses. Jha is also hopeful that private insurance companies will also continue to cover COVID-19 tests, extending what the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had mandated last year for the emergency.
“This is one where it’s going to be working with insurance companies, working with payers, providers, reminding people that for the last two years the U.S. government has paid for all of this with taxpayer money. And that has been a boon for insurance companies that haven’t had to pay for any of this stuff,” said Jha.
He also repeated a previous pledge to carve out a solution for uninsured Americans, who will not be able to get their COVID-19 vaccines or treatments covered by insurance.
However, despite the lack of new funding from Capitol Hill, Jha said it was possible the White House would be able to cobble together money to fund the development of some new vaccines and treatments.
“We have been talking internally, the president is very committed to moving this agenda forward. So we are now looking at across the administration saying, where do we have resources, what can we pull together,” said Jha.
The switch to a private market for COVID-19 products would come not long after the May deadline officials announced earlier this week, when the White House plans to end the emergency declarations that were first invoked for the pandemic three years ago.
Jha said that ending the declarations had been prompted in part by the need to end many of the flexibilities that were offered to the health care system for early virus surges.
“The question is, do we want to give that flexibility forever? So like in 2025, a hospital says we’re going to set up some beds in the parking lot, maybe not. There is a time when you want to say, OK, that flexibility needs to go away,” Jha said.
Officials have said that some flexibilities enacted during the pandemic will continue.
For example, the Food and Drug Administration says its emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 products will be able to continue after the public health emergency officially ends, similar to how countermeasures to Zika virus or anthrax remain available.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson said that the agency’s vaccination requirement for international travelers is tied to a separate proclamation issued by President Biden. It is unknown if he will seek to extend that, a White House spokesperson said.
Some of the federal and state liability protections offered to expand the pool of vaccinators through the PREP Act will also be able to continue after the end of the public health emergency.
The budget passed by Congress over the winter also will delay losing some flexibilities, like for telehealth, beyond the end of the emergency.
“We want to keep some of these things, and some of these things, we want to go back to normal ways of functioning. So the public health emergency had to end. But we wanted to make sure that some of the stuff got preserved,” said Jha.
Personally, Jha said he had now resumed indoor dining and attending events.
Aside from a cold, so far he believes he has not caught COVID-19 or the flu. He credited that in part to continuing to wear masks during travel and in crowded indoor places.
“It just does not feel like a particular burden to me. So I do that. But I feel like I live my life pretty close to normal to where I was in 2019, with some modest modifications,” he said.