The Biden administration is set to extend the COVID-19 public health emergency through at least next April.
The public health emergency, which was set to expire on Jan. 11, will remain in place through the first quarter of 2022 to allow the government more time to offload responsibility for COVID-19 vaccines, tests, antiviral treatment, and other COVID-19 pharmaceuticals to the private sector — all have been provided free by the government during the health emergency, a Biden administration official told Reuters.
The emergency declaration was initially declared in January 2020 and has been extended in increments of 90 days since.
The Biden administration signaled earlier this year that it would begin figuring out how to transfer key tasks to the private sector, meeting with drugmakers, pharmacies, and other stakeholders in the healthcare industry in late August to discuss how to begin the commercialization process, though the transition has been slow to get off its feet.
Despite the extension, the administration is running on a time crunch to begin the process as federal COVID-19 funding runs low. Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in August that the administration anticipates running out of runs to purchase or distribute vaccines by “as early as January 2023.”
“In fact, additional COVID-19 funding continues to be urgently needed for a range of critical response needs, including the development of next-generation vaccines, therapeutics, and tests,” she wrote, saying there is a need for additional funds from Congress to support the transition to the commercial market.
The Biden administration had requested $10 billion from Congress earlier this year to purchase and stockpile additional tests, updated shots, and antivirals, but that effort stalled as some Republican lawmakers argued that the current COVID-19 funding hadn’t been fully exhausted.
Discussions have occurred for months about when the emergency designation should end as the pandemic continues in its third year. President Joe Biden himself declared the coronavirus pandemic “over” in an off-the-cuff remark during a 60 Minutes interview last month, adding that the United States continued to have a “problem with COVID” but that the country had returned to normalcy with large events.
House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and health subcommittee ranking member Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said last month that the administration lacked the justification to continue the emergency.
The continuation of the emergency authorization means that tests, vaccines, and treatments will likely remain free to the public. It also extends a practice that requires states to offer continuous enrollment for Medicaid and CHIP, public health insurance programs for low-income people, in order to receive additional federal funding, allowing some people who may have exceeded the income levels to qualify without a temporary or permanent lapse in coverage.
It’s unclear how much the COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments will cost after the transition, but Pfizer already announced it plans to sell its COVID-19 shot with BioNTech for roughly $110 to $130 for adults, meaning that most people with health insurance will likely pay a fraction of that cost or nothing at all.