House of Representatives approves $8bn coronavirus response bill
The House of Representatives has approved an $8bn package of measures to tackle the coronavirus crisis, as officials reported at least 129 total cases of the disease in the US and the death toll rose to 10 after the first fatality in California was reported.
The lower chamber of Congress, controlled by the Democrats, passed the funding measures on Wednesday afternoon with overwhelming bipartisan support, after striking an agreement with Republicans who control the Senate.
The funding request is much larger than the $2.5bn originally requested by the Trump administration. The White House is expected to support the legislation assuming it is approved by the Senate in the coming days.
The largest slice of the funding, $3.1bn, will go to the public health and social services emergency fund. It will be used for the development of drugs, diagnostics and vaccines, prioritising so-called platform-based technologies, which can be quickly re-engineered to address different viruses, and companies with manufacturing capabilities in the US. It will also be used for the purchase of such necessary medical supplies and increasing the system’s capacity to care for patients.
Some $2.2bn will be given to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost $1bn of which must be doled out in grants to state and local organisations to track the disease and control it on the ground. Of that, $300m must be spent for responding to the crisis globally. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which carries out basic research and has partnered with vaccine makers, will receive $836m.
The bill sets aside $250m for economic support during the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak. It also tries to address the potential economic impact for small businesses, adding $20m to the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans programme.
Shortly before the new funding was agreed, Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the US Senate, said: “I’d like to compliment Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, for making efforts to come together, for being the adults in the room while President [Donald] Trump childishly exaggerates, underplays, points fingers of blame, latches on to conspiracy theories and, most of all, doesn’t lead”.
Democrats had been pushing for measures to ensure that any drugs or vaccines to treat coronavirus patients or slow the spread of the disease were affordable for all. More than 40 members of Congress wrote to Mr Trump last month to demand that government funding comes with strings attached, as many fear that uninsured or underinsured patients could be wary about seeking care that is too expensive, worsening the outbreak.
The bill comes with some such strings. It requires companies receiving government funds to make their diagnostics, treatments or vaccines “affordable”. It also insists that any government purchases of such products follow the existing guidance on “fair and reasonable pricing”.
However, it gives no more detail on what affordable means or how the government is to guarantee access for all. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, attacked Democrats for insisting on those conditions.
“Congress should’ve already passed a funding bill to combat coronavirus. Period. But Democrats are hell-bent on sneaking in elements of their liberal agenda — which would slow down vaccine development and availability,” he said.
The American College of Physicians praised the bill, saying it was an “important step” to provide the resources needed to cope with the outbreak. The association had been asking for Congress to waive Medicare requirements about where a doctor is geographically located when they provide tele-health services during the crisis — which the bill does.
Drug companies, however, have warned Congress not to allow the US government to cap the price of any eventual treatment or vaccine for coronavirus.
Stephen Ubl, chief executive of the pharmaceuticals industry group Phrma, said on Wednesday: “The concern is that if the collaboration with the government, even in a limited way, results in the loss of intellectual property or the government setting the price, it is going to have a chilling effect on both investment and collaboration at a time when we need more of both.”
Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, now has 30 days to provide a detailed spending plan, which must be updated every two months. Congress must be informed of any single government contract worth more than $5m.
As lawmakers closed in on the funding package, Mr Trump met chief executives of airline companies that have faced falling demand and cancellations due to the outbreak. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, also met the heads of the largest diagnostic labs in the country, amid pressure to show that the US was rapidly expanding testing for coronavirus which has been lagging behind.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington