Biden advisers say U.S. will remain vulnerable to COVID unless Congress acts

By Sheril Gay Stolberg

President Joe Biden’s coronavirus czar said Wednesday that the United States was woefully behind other nations in tracking potentially dangerous variants of the virus, and used the first White House public health briefing to issue a stark warning that Americans will remain vulnerable to the deadly pandemic unless Congress acts.

“We are 43rd in the world in genomic sequencing — totally unacceptable,” said Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator, Jeffrey Zients, citing December data from the GISAID Initiative, which provides a global database of coronavirus genomes. In a brief interview later, he corrected himself, saying he had since learned that the United States was now behind 31 other nations.

Biden has repeatedly promised that his administration will conduct regular briefings and be transparent about its efforts to fight the virus, and Wednesday’s virtual meeting was an effort to make good on the president’s pledge. But it was troubled by technical difficulties, with the audio cutting out intermittently.

During the hourlong session, which drew 500 participants, Zients also warned that the federal government still faced shortages of personal protective gear and other essential supplies that it would not be able to buy if Congress did not pass Biden’s coronavirus relief plan. His pleas for more money were echoed by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House has dispatched Zients and other top officials to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill as they try to wrangle support for a sweeping $1.9 trillion package that would provide billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, schools, unemployment benefits and another round of direct payments. Top Democrats have said they hope to approve another package with bipartisan support.

But with several senators already balking at the scope and size of the package, Democrats are leaving open the possibility of using a legislative process, known as budget reconciliation, that would allow the legislation to become law with a simple majority rather than by the usual 60-vote threshold.

Scientists have warned that, with no robust system to identify genetic variations of the coronavirus, the United States is ill equipped to track dangerous new mutations, leaving health officials blind as they try to combat the grave threat.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said the National Institutes of Health was working with the CDC on research aimed at adapting vaccines so that they “have on the ability to neutralize these mutants.” One coronavirus variant, which has surged in Britain and burdened its hospitals with cases, has been increasingly detected in the United States.

Federal health officials have warned that this variant, which is more contagious, could become the dominant source of infection in the United States by March, and would most likely lead to a wrenching surge in cases and deaths that would further overwhelm hospitals. Other variants spreading in South Africa and Brazil have also caused concern.

“I look at the data from the U.K. and how quickly it got really bad in terms of its contagiousness, and how much it could cause a spike, and I am really worried about that,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s also widespread across the U.S. — 20 some odd states have already identified it. That is the big one that I worry about.”

The CDC said Wednesday that about 20.7 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and that about 3.8 million people have been fully vaccinated. More than 1 million people a day, on average, have received a shot to help protect them against COVID-19 in the United States over the past week.

As the vaccine rollout accelerates, the number of daily new cases in the United States, which has the worst outbreak in the world, has been on the decline in recent weeks. American deaths, though, remain high, numbering more than 3,000 per day on average in recent days.

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