COVID treatments that work against the new omicron variant are in short supply, and Republican governors are accusing President Joe Biden of preventing their distribution by purchasing them in such bulk amounts that it prevents states from making their own purchases.
The alternative, though, could be a serious bidding war among states for treatments like antiviral pills and sotrovimab, the only monoclonal antibody believed to be effective against omicron. That’s what happened in the early days of the pandemic when governors fought over the purchase of ventilators, tests and masks and drove up prices.
Still, after an almost singular focus on buying vaccine doses, Biden is now under pressure to find new ways to boost production of treatments for people who become seriously ill from COVID, most of whom are unvaccinated.
“The federal government has cornered the entire market,” declared Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Monday.
Likewise, in Texas, the health department there said several of its regional infusion centers had exhausted its supply of sotrovimab. Texas tied the shortage directly to Biden, noting in a statement “the federal government controls the distribution of monoclonal antibodies” and that the state ran out “due to the national shortage from the federal government.”
The Biden administration has acknowledged that life-saving treatments are in short supply because production has been unable to keep pace with omicron, which has rendered some treatments less effective and caused a sudden spike in cases.
“The low supply is something we need to worry about,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told governors in a private call last month about sotrovimab, according to a readout obtained by ABC News.
Another promising treatment — the new antiviral pill Paxlovid — is expected to begin rolling out this month, but probably won’t be widely available for several more months.
President Biden announced on Tuesday that he planned to double the federal purchase of pills from 10 million courses of treatment to 20 million with the first half available by June, rather than September. The pill is found to be 89% effective at reducing the risk of severe illness and death.
The practice of buying treatments and vaccines in bulk as a way to manage shortages and prevent bidding wars was initiated by the Trump administration. After then-President Donald Trump declared the federal government wasn’t a “shipping clerk” in early 2020, Republican and Democratic governors complained of inflated prices because they were directly competing with one another online.
Then, New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo compared it to “being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.”
The Trump administration then slowly began amassing a stockpile of supplies that could be distributed around the country based on need. Trump’s Health and Human Services Department initiated bulk purchases of vaccines and therapeutics like Regeneron – a monoclonal antibody taken by Trump when he became ill with COVID.
Biden continued the practice, negotiating with companies to purchase additional vaccine shots and therapeutics and distributing to states for free based on population and risk factors.
But the spike in omicron cases has reignited a political debate on whether that’s the right approach.
Compounding the problem is that two monoclonal antibody treatments are believed not to work as well against omicron, at one point prompting the government to stop distributing them. The federal government has since resumed shipments upon finding it overestimated the number of omicron cases.
The Biden administration now says it will not distribute these types of monoclonal antibodies to regions where omicron comprises more than 80% of cases. The omicron variant is now estimated to account for 95% of new cases in the U.S., as of Jan. 1, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.
Not every Republican governor is blaming Biden for treatments being in short supply.
In a statement Monday, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said monoclonal antibody teams expected to arrive on Monday were delayed due to overwhelming demand.
“While we were surprised by the delay in their arrival, we are appreciative of the federal government’s assistance,” said Sununu in a statement. “Since making our initial request a month ago, their assistance has become even more critical now as we manage the peak of the winter surge.”
ABC’s Karen Travers, Will McDuffie and Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.