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Capitol Hill providing $8.3B for coronavirus; pharmas pledge to stay committed

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Microscopic image of coronavirus
Source: National Institutes of Health

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill agreed to provide $8.3 billion in emergency funding to address the new coronavirus in the U.S., a package that was swiftly adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill received the backing of 415 members of the House on March 4, while two Republicans — Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado — opposed the measure.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rejected President Donald Trump's proposal of $2.5 billion for the coronavirus response and settled on an amount closer to the $8.5 billion that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had proposed.

The Senate is expected to adopt the $8.3 billion package March 5.

The greatest share of the funds will benefit biopharmaceutical and diagnostic manufacturers.

More than $3 billion of the money will be devoted to research and development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics — $2 billion to the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, $826 million to the National Institutes of Health and $300 million for a contingency procurement fund intended to ensure products developed with taxpayer funds are accessible.

Lawmakers also designated another $500 million to buy pharmaceuticals, masks, personal protective equipment and other medical supplies on behalf of state and local health agencies in areas with a shortage of those products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will get about $61 million of the funding to facilitate the development and regulatory review of medical countermeasures, devices, therapies and vaccines and to help mitigate potential interruptions in the supply chain — a particular concern for the agency.

About $2.2 billion is tagged for public health activities, including laboratory testing.

At a March 4 Capitol Hill hearing, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said the U.S. should be proactively testing Americans for coronavirus.

"I feel strongly about that," Fauci said. He acknowledged the Trump administration had been slow in making test kits available and lifting barriers that prevented commercial and academic facilities from making and providing their own tests.

A serious disease

The reason the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, is so serious is because "the mortality of this is multiple times what seasonal flu is," Fauci told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

The mortality rate of seasonal influenza is about 0.1%, whereas the latest data from China on COVID-19 have shown that rate to be between 3% and 4%, Fauci said.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has infected about 95,500 people and killed nearly 3,300, according to Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

On March 4, U.S. health officials reported the nation's 11th death in an elderly California resident who recently traveled on a cruise ship from San Francisco to Mexico.

That same day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. New York also reported a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Across the finish line

At a March 4 briefing, executives from companies involved in developing drugs and vaccines for infectious diseases pledged to find successful products for COVID-19 and not abandon that pursuit, like has been the case with other outbreaks, such as with severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome and the Zika virus.

"We have learned one really important lesson over and over again — from then to now — is that every time there is a new outbreak, we get started on a vaccine or started on treatments but don't cross the finish line," Merck & Co. Inc. Executive Vice President Julie Gerberding told reporters. "What we need to understand as a government and as a scientific community is what it would take to make sure we finish the job."

With the new $8.3 billion funding package, the commitment from industry to collaborate and share data and the support from regulators, Gerberding said she was confident "we will be able to finish the job on coronavirus."

But she also emphasized industry could not commit on a timeline for that success.

"So that's why we are cautioning people not to overpromise on the timeline of the vaccine availability," Gerberding said.

Gilead Sciences Inc. CEO Daniel O'Day said his company should have a preliminary idea by the end of April if its experimental drug remdesivir is safe and effective in COVID-19.

"We have to plan as a company and as a community of companies for success, and therefore, we're investing heavily in our supply chain and in manufacturing," O'Day said.