Congressional leaders have begun to mount pressure on the Biden administration over monkeypox, demanding to know what its plan is to handle the outbreak as cases continue to rise and treatments still remain. out of reach for many affected people.
High-ranking members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle have asked Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for answers about what his department is doing to handle the monkeypox outbreak, several legislators questioning what they perceive as a failed answer.
Nearly 2,600 cases were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday. Those numbers are almost certainly an understatement due to limited testing capabilities for monkeypox, one of the issues lawmakers have raised in recent weeks.
Last week, Senator Richard Burr (RN.C.), a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the US response to the virus “disturbing” in a letter in Becerra, saying the administration has all the tools it needs to better deal with the outbreak.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (DN.Y.), who are chairs of major congressional health panels, both sent letters to the HHS secretary this week listing their concerns.
A group of 50 House Democrats also sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to declare a public health emergency over monkeypox.
“This would make available a number of authorities to expedite the federal response and tap into additional resources to procure vaccines and distribute them quickly across the country,” they wrote.
Murray and Maloney both said they would seek briefings from HHS early next month.
While there is no word so far on whether Becerra will attend a briefing, HHS released an updated monkeypox response fact sheet on Thursday. The agency said it has distributed about 200,000 Jynneos vaccines so far and expects about 800,000 more later this summer.
“Over the next few days and weeks, HHS will continue to strengthen and accelerate its strategy for combating monkeypox and work closely with public health officials and stakeholders in high-risk communities to provide vaccines, testing and treatment to communities across the country,” the department says.
The agency acknowledged that testing capacity was limited at the start of the outbreak and said the United States’ testing capacity has now increased to 80,000 tests per week.
“Because there is no rapid test for monkeypox, it is especially important that patients presenting to clinics are not turned down for testing,” Murray said in his letter to Becerra this week.
While the supply of vaccines is increasing, there are still barriers that prevent many people from accessing treatments like antivirals. Critics were quick to point out that people who were able to get treatment were generally more favored than those who may not have health insurance or a regular healthcare provider.
HHS said this week that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC are working to simplify the process of obtaining antivirals and reiterated that all rounds of treatment so far have been free.
The White House said at a Friday press briefing that it was taking steps to expand access to vaccines and antivirals.
Without mentioning lawmakers’ recent calls for enhanced action, officials including White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha addressed some of the areas of the monkeypox strategy that members of Congress have taken issue with.
“We have leveraged every resource at our disposal since the early days of this outbreak,” Jha said.
According to Jha, more than 300,000 doses of vaccine to treat monkeypox have been shipped and hundreds of thousands more doses are expected to arrive from Denmark in the coming weeks.
The White House official also said efforts were being made to make Tecovirimat, a smallpox antiviral also known as TPOXX, which is believed to be effective against monkeypox, more accessible.
“The CDC and the FDA have worked very hard to streamline this treatment access process to make it easier for clinicians to order it…get it for their patients. It’s a work in progress but it will continue to accelerate,” Jha said, adding that the administration is looking to reduce the paperwork needed to provide the TPOXX which is not technically licensed to treat monkeypox.
Jha also responded to calls from lawmakers to declare a public health emergency, saying it was an ongoing conversation.
“We are looking at that, looking at what are the ways in which the response could be improved, if necessary, by declaring a public health emergency,” he said.
“I think with public health emergencies, it’s always important to ask very specific questions about what exactly would allow us to do things differently than what we’re doing now. And would that facilitate the ability to respond to this outbreak? So I will just say that there is no final decision on this that I know of.