- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are tracking the omicron sub-variant that caused spikes overseas but the strain, while fast-moving, does not appear to make infected persons any sicker and is not straining hospital capacity.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky called it “something we are watching closely.” 

At the same time, the administration pleaded with Congress to maintain American vigilance through new virus funding, saying they need more money for treatments and vaccines to be prepared for a potential new wave.

The BA.2 variant caused slight rises in cases in New York and New England but daily national case counts of around 28,000 are near historic lows compared to the rest of the pandemic, Dr. Walensky said Wednesday.

“There is no evidence that BA.2 variant results in more severe disease,” she said.

The new variant is fueling an uptick in the U.K. and other European nations, and the U.S. generally sees a wave a few weeks after Europe gets hit.

The variant accounted for 35% of sequenced U.S. samples last week, up from 23% the prior week and 14% in the week before that, meaning it appears to be slowly taking over.

The White House and state leaders are trying to lift restrictions and rely on pharmaceutical defenses to stave off future waves of the virus.

“We have the tools —vaccines, boosters, tests and therapeutics — to be prepared,” Dr. Walensky said.

Members of the White House task force warned that the U.S. will run out of those tools if Congress does not approve Mr. Biden’s request for over $20 billion to combat the virus.

Republicans have balked at new spending, saying the administration likely has leftover coronavirus funds. Democratic leaders are trying to forge a path forward by searching for available funds or proposing ways to pay for new spending. They are working with Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, on a path forward even as the White House team said pay-fors shouldn’t be necessary for emergency spending.

“This should be unacceptable to every American,” White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said money is running out for paying claims from labs and doctors who provide COVID-19 services. The supply of therapeutics of the virus will run out by late May if the government doesn’t have sufficient funding, he said.

The supply of a drug from AstraZeneca that helps the immunocompromised stave off COVID-19 will be depleted by fall, according to Mr. Becerra, who is taking a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response.

Mr. Zients said there will be enough vaccine supply to support fourth doses for the immunocompromised and most vulnerable but without more funding, the government won’t have enough money to procure shots for the general population if health officials authorize and recommend extra boosters in the coming weeks.

“Not having enough vaccines is completely unacceptable,” Mr. Zients said. “The consequences of congressional inaction are severe and immediate.”

Mr. Zients briefed reporters as he prepares to give way in the coming weeks to Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who tweets about the pandemic and comments on television. The change is part of the administration’s pivot from a logistical campaign to an effort to manage the virus as another manageable disease.

Also Wednesday, drugmaker Moderna said it will seek the emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 6 years old, touting preliminary data showing it produced an immune response similar to that of larger doses for young adults.

The Massachusetts-based company said its two-dose regimen was 44% effective in preventing symptomatic illness among those 6 months to 2 years old, and 37% effective in 2- to 5-year-olds during the omicron wave.

However, vaccine makers say that those percentages are better than nothing and that they think a booster will be necessary to thwart the variant in children, as it is in adults.

The Food and Drug Administration had pushed a rival drugmaker, Pfizer-BioNTech, to seek approval of its two-dose regimen to get a jump-start on the vaccine rollout for young children, only to backtrack and wait for data on a third dose by April.

Moderna said it will submit its two-dose data to the FDA as it prepares to evaluate the impact of a booster on ages 6 months to 6 years, older children and adolescents. The company will also seek the authorization of its vaccine for 6- to 11-year-olds.

Right now, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is available to kids 5 years old and older.

“We now have clinical data on the performance of our vaccine from infants 6 months of age through older adults,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said. “Given the need for a vaccine against COVID-19 in infants and young children we are working with the U.S. FDA and regulators globally to submit these data as soon as possible.”

The authorization of a vaccine for even younger kids would be a major step in the COVID-19 fight. Some parents and policymakers are clamoring for the shots so that basically everyone in their communities has the chance to seek the protection of COVID-19 vaccines as society tries to pivot back to normal. As it stands, roughly 18 million Americans under age 5 are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

Polls suggest only a third of parents would get their young children vaccinated right away, however, given the relatively low rates of severe disease and death from COVID-19 in children versus older people.

Moderna said its vaccine regimen for those 6 months to 5 years old consists of two shots of a 25-microgram dose of messenger-RNA, a groundbreaking platform that teaches the body to recognize the virus and attack it. The shots for adults hold 50 micrograms.

Mr. Zients said it secured enough supply of a vaccine for young children, if and when it is approved.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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