Opinion: The clock is ticking. When will Congress fund updated Covid-19 treatments?

Syra Madad writes that many antibody drugs no longer work against Covid-19 because of the rapid evolution and subvariants. To keep up with the changing nature of the virus, the US government must continue investing in Covid therapeutics.

Opinion: The clock is ticking. When will Congress fund updated Covid-19 treatments?

Editor's note: Syra Madad is an infectious disease epidemiologist and science communicator. She is also the senior director for the systemwide special pathogens programme at NYC Health + Hospitals and a fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Twitter: URL These comments are her views. CNN has more opinions.


My family was the first to be infected by Covid-19 in April 2020. This was a frightening and terrifying experience, especially considering that there was no effective vaccine available and many casualties were rising in New York City.

I was disappointed that most of us were re-infected in January. We are all up to date on vaccinations and wear masks in high risk settings. We have recovered from the second round of reinfection, which is a common occurrence for many. Although I still have a chronic cough and postnasal drainage, it has been more annoying than anything.

The availability of vaccines, and other therapeutics made our second experience a vast improvement over the first.

But many of the antibody drugs are no longer effective due to the rapid evolution of the virus and its many subvariants. The US government desperately needs to continue to invest in more Covid therapeutics to keep up with the evolving nature of the virus.

After more than three years, the Biden administration announced that it will end the Covid-19 public health emergency. In early 2021, the national crisis reached its peak, with over 4,000 deaths per hour from Covid-19. Subsequent waves like that caused by Omicron were also extremely deadly. The latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that there are now less than 2,300 deaths each week. This is due in part to vaccinations, therapeutics, and increased immunity in our communities.

But the virus that causes Covid-19 has not disappeared. Based on the CDC's weekly count, Covid-19 still kills an average of about 327 Americans every day. For comparison, lung cancer causes more than 350 deaths each day in this country — the highest number of deaths for all types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. There are still massive efforts made to educate the public on lung cancer prevention, screening and treatment. And research, as well as the search for better treatment, hasn't stopped. So why should we accept anything less for Covid-19?

The reality is the rapid evolution of Covid-19 and its subvariant offspring has severely limited our arsenal of effective therapeutics, especially for the immunosuppressed.

The US Food and Drug Administration has stopped the approval of five anti-bodies therapies over the past two years because Omicron's Subvariants rendered them ineffective.

In November, with a new sublineage of Omicron taking off, the FDA rescinded the emergency use authorization for the antibody therapy bebtelovimab, a drug used for the treatment of mild to moderate Covid-19 in adults and pediatric patients.

Two months later, the rapid growth in the XBB sublineage Omicron began to dominate US Covid cases. Evusheld, an anti-Covid-19 combination that is long-acting and prevents covid-19 in immunocompromised patients who are unable to mount an immune response to Covid-19 vaccine, was revoked by the FDA.

For those not in hospital but at high risk of severe illness due to Covid-19, antivirals like Remdesivir, Paxlovid and Molnupiravir are available. Convalescent plasma is also available for some patients. All these options have their limitations. Some pharmaceutical companies have indicated that they will continue to research and evaluate potential antibody therapies.

The quest for more effective therapeutics is only one aspect of the challenge. Another challenge is the need for Covid-19 vaccines that are more effective and block transmission.

It is important to continue investing in vaccines that are better, particularly as some studies show that people who have recovered from Covid-19 still face a higher risk of developing complications later on. This is just one of many long-term effects that the disease has on the brain, kidneys and lungs. The increased risk of reinfections adds to the problem. Study has shown that people who catch Covid-19 repeatedly are more likely to develop new, and sometimes permanent health problems.

There's also the possibility of long Covid. This umbrella term refers to a wide range of health issues that people have after becoming infected. Although it is difficult to estimate how many people will experience long Covid over time, the US Census Bureau conducted a survey in 2022 to find that approximately 16 million Americans (18-65) are suffering from long Covid. Of those, between 2 and 4 million are currently out of work.

I don't mean to be negative, but our current vaccines can save lives and prevent severe consequences from Covid-19. According to the CDC, 671 million doses (or more) of Covid-19 vaccines were administered in the United States between December 2021 and December 2021. This is a remarkable achievement in public health, with approximately 80% of Americans receiving at least one dose.

The Commonwealth Fund has released a new analysis that shows that vaccinations have prevented over 18 million hospitalizations, and prevented more than 3,000,000 deaths since their introduction. It also stated that the vaccination program'saved America more than $1 trillion in medical expenses, has preserved hospital resources and kept children in school and allowed for the reopening and expansion of businesses and other activities. One study showed that Covid-19 vaccines can help lower the risk of long-term Covid. We need to improve our vaccines.

The last Congress did not fund next-generation Covid-19 vaccines or treatment and it seems unlikely that our current Congress will do so either. But we are in desperate need of an Operation Warp Speed 2.0 as we continue to experience the evolution of this virus, which has been chipping away at the protective wall of immunity we've built over the last few years. To stop funding now would be foolish.

The good part is we're not starting from scratch. Places such as the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, which recently unveiled a road map for advancing better Covid-19 vaccines, are doing good work. But funding and political commitment are necessary — not just scientific expertise and resources.

As I reflect on the last three years of the pandemic, it wasn't the failure of science or technology that stumped us. On the contrary, scientific breakthroughs meant we had two lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines at our disposal roughly a year after the novel coronavirus first emerged. What hurt us most was our failure of imagination.

It's wishful thinking to think that the virus responsible for Covid-19 has passed. It would be a mistake to sit back and allow the virus to continue to evolve, possibly leading to more severe variants.