An ominous sign for continued funding of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics came this week when the Biden administration decided to split off these funds from a bill supplying Ukraine with military aid. It was an indication that funding COVID vaccines, once a matter of bipartisan accord, was losing Republican support.
But this was merely an indirect measure of the Republican position. A more direct indication comes from Caitlin Owens, who explains why Senate Republicans are haggling over spending money on vaccines and therapeutics. The answer is that they’re concerned about wasting money.
Owens’s reporting gets into the Republican view in more detail than any previous report. One Republican concern is that the current funding strategy prioritizes access over efficiency. The vaccines are distributed in multidose vials that, once opened, must be used or thrown away, leading to some spoilage. “Republicans say the current strategy is wasteful,” Owens reports, “and it would be better to rein in accessibility so that more doses are likely to be used.”
A second concern is that the vaccines, while highly effective against hospitalization and death, are proving less effective against transmission. Therefore, Republicans don’t want to spend too much on them.
“Republicans are skeptical of using federal money to buy more vaccines that are proving not to last very long and questions remain if they will work against future variants,” a senior GOP Senate aide told Owens. “We’re saying that the current shot and boosters are reducing in effectiveness. New vaxx isn’t ready and it’s unclear where they are in the plan,” the aide added. “Since there is no plan, we don’t want to give them [a] blank check.”
The shortsightedness of this position is almost unfathomable. It is difficult to conceive of a less intelligent way to save the government money than to skimp on vaccines and therapeutics. The scale of the savings in vaccine subsidies is in the billions, and the cost of the pandemic is measured in trillions. The vaccines have probably averted more than a million deaths already. Even putting humanitarian concerns to the side, as a Brookings study notes, the economic case for funding vaccines and therapeutics remains extremely strong.
Even if vaccines can’t stop transmission, their ability to avert hospitalization, not to mention death, is an enormous cost saving. If we want to prevent continued waves of shutdowns, the vaccines and therapeutics offer the most cost-effective remedies by orders of magnitude.
Looking to save money on wasted doses is fiscal conservatism as pathology. If they can’t get Republicans to see reason on this subject, Democrats need to abandon normal procedure and force a majority vote. Tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, and potentially trillions of dollars, depend on this.