Dr. Anthony Fauci, speaking by video-link because he contracted COVID-19, told Congress on Thursday his agency is studying vaccines that better target the omicron variant and it will be “paramount” to develop a new generation of shots that can tackle a range of coronaviruses.
Dr. Fauci said existing vaccines can stave off severe disease from spinoffs of the virus first detected in China, especially if someone is boosted. But the National Institutes of Health is trying to increase the breadth of the vaccines’ immune response and improve children’s uptake.
“Looking ahead to the anticipated emergence of new variants, the importance of developing the next generation of coronavirus vaccines is paramount,” said Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “This virus is changing, and we need to keep up with it.”
He said NIH has awarded grants in pursuit of a so-called “pan-coronavirus” vaccine, but more taxpayer dollars are needed.
Congress, meanwhile, is deadlocked on a $10 billion COVID-19 funding package.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said the administration keeps asking for money, but he still isn’t sure what the plan is, or why countries like Israel seem to be ahead of the curve in deploying vaccines and treatments.
“I ask you one basic question — what’s the plan?” Mr. Burr said. “Where’s that money going? How’s it been spent?”
Biden officials said the plan is to deploy treatments and available vaccines as the data warrants while scientists develop better tools.
But Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, was particularly upset the administration said it couldn’t possibly buy treatments and other virus supplies without an injection of more funding, only to see it divert funds from other pots of money to make the purchases while Congress deadlocked on $10 billion deal.
“We had to do so with significant tradeoffs, tradeoffs none of us wanted to make,” said Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response. “It’s something we didn’t think was acceptable.”
Other Republicans wanted to know if there has been any progress in determining the origins of the coronavirus.
Dr. Fauci said all the evidence “points strongly to a natural occurrence” in which the virus jumped from other species to humans in China, though he said the lab-leak theory remains an avenue of exploration and the Chinese will have to cooperate to get firmer answers.
At the hearing, Dr. Fauci, 81, sounded slightly raspy after he reported a positive test and mild symptoms. Instead of joining President Biden’s virus team in a Senate hearing room, he spoke from a home office.
The Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize child-sized versions of the existing vaccines to kids aged 6 months to 4 years, who are ineligible now, and is considering ways to reformulate the vaccines to specifically tackle omicron.
A new campaign to convince Americans to get booster shots is likely this fall.
Like Dr. Fauci, Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray said the government must adapt along with the virus.
“We can’t just keep buying the same tests, treatments and vaccines, especially when the virus is getting more effective at evading them,” said Mrs. Murray, Washington Democrat.
She said the government needs to help finance the next generation of tests, vaccines and treatments that are “more effective, or easier to store, transport, and administer, and more.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.