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Biden officials plan to shift COVID-19 vaccine coverage to private market as soon as January

The Biden administration said Tuesday that it anticipates shifting COVID-19 vaccine distribution to the private market as soon as January 2023, marking a new phase in fighting the pandemic.

The move to the private market for vaccines, as well as treatments, would be another sign that the administration views the acute emergency phase of the pandemic as ending, and that purchasing and distribution of measures to fight COVID-19 should work more like the rest of the health care system, rather than the government playing the leading role.  

The Biden administration said that while it had always planned to have the government get out of its central role eventually, the process had accelerated because Congress has not provided funding for the government to purchase more vaccines and treatments.  

“We have always intended to transition this work to the commercial market and have been planning for that transition for some time now,” Dawn O’Connell, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the timeline to make the transition has accelerated over the past six months without additional funds from Congress to support this work.” 

O’Connell said that funding from Congress would allow for an “orderly” transition to the private market. 

In a world where vaccines and treatments are paid for by private insurers, people who are uninsured could face additional challenges getting access.  

The administration said funding from Congress would “allow us to more effectively ensure equitable distribution and coverage for the underinsured and uninsured,” amid the transition.  

HHS convened a planning meeting with various parts of the health care industry, state governments and patient advocates on Tuesday.  

“As early as January 2023, the Administration anticipates no longer having federal funds to purchase or distribute vaccines and will need to transition these activities to the commercial market, similar to seasonal flu or other commercially available vaccines,” O’Connell wrote.  

That move would come after a fall push on updated booster shots, which have been purchased by the government like the earlier COVID-19 vaccines were.  

The monoclonal antibody treatment called bebtelovimab was already transitioned to the private market earlier this month, she wrote, and the Pfizer treatment pills Paxlovid could shift in “mid-2023.” 

Even as buying and distributing vaccines and treatments moves to the private market, the administration notes funding from Congress is still needed for development of next-generation vaccines that can better fight new variants of the virus, as well as maintaining adequate testing capacity.  

“Additional COVID-19 funding continues to be urgently needed for a range of critical response needs, including the development of next-generation vaccines, therapeutics, and tests,” O’Connell wrote.  

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