Federal Coronavirus Contract Requests Show the U.S. in a Desperate Scramble to Catch Up

A survey of federal contracts and requests for proposals related to the Covid-19 epidemic is not reassuring.

Photo Illustration: Iryna Veklich/Getty Images

First the good news: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just put out a request for contracts for 500 million face masks. Now the bad news: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services just issued its request on Wednesday for contracts for the masks that can give health care workers some measure of protection against a new coronavirus — more than three months after the virus, now sickening and killing people worldwide, began to spread in China. And the proposals aren’t due back until March 18. The mask request is just one of several efforts on behalf of federal agencies to round up basic supplies for dealing with the new coronavirus that should have been made much, much earlier.

After cutting much of the infrastructure necessary to protect the U.S. from the virus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2 and which causes a disease called Covid-19, the Trump administration is now scrambling to play catch up, according to a survey of recently released documents. A request for information from the Domestic Strategic National Stockpile’s Office of Resource Management asks vendors of medical supplies how much protective gear they have in stock. The survey, which went out to government contractors on February 24, queries the companies about their current and projected inventory of “N95 Respirators, Surgical N95 Masks, Coveralls, Tyvek Suits or equivalent Coverall, Gowns, Non-Splash Goggles, and Face Shields” to assist with the outbreak. Responses are due on March 24.

Some of the recently released announcements about federal funding opportunities are what you might expect from any government racing to keep up with a fast-moving crisis. On March 5, for instance, the FDA modified an existing contract with Stanford University that was to do Ebola research and will soon include “a near-term analysis of 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” As the notice of intent to change makes clear, it “leverages the technology and methodology for examining Ebola sequelae and Zika immunopathology” that was already in place. The just-added work entails characterizing the new virus “using samples from non-human primate (NHP) animal models and human tissues (pending availability) to empower future regulatory decision making.”

But the requests for contract and spending proposals are only now beginning to trickle out while the Trump administration is facing an avalanche of criticism for its delayed and bungled response to the virus, which as of Tuesday afternoon had caused at least 794 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and more than 116,000 worldwide.

The fractured response “has everything to do with the way we fund disaster preparedness,” said Nicolette Louissaint, an expert in global health and pharmaceutical trade policy and the executive director of Healthcare Ready, an organization focused on meeting patient needs before, during, and after disease outbreaks and catastrophic events. “What we haven’t yet done as a nation is to determine and agree to what the baseline funding level should be in order to make sure that the nation is sufficiently protected for disasters and disease outbreaks.” While Louissant described the U.S. government as chronically failing to prepare for epidemics, she said the problem has intensified in the last three years.

Since the emergence of the new coronavirus in January, the White House has focused on downplaying rather than addressing the global spread of the illness. In early February, as the spread of the virus was accelerating throughout the world, the administration released a budget that included steep cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency responsible for health and well-being of Americans. Weeks later, as the first American was dying of Covid-19, Trump referred to the virus as a “hoax” at a campaign rally. Last week, as the virus entered the community transmission phase in parts of the U.S., the administration still had yet to grasp — or adequately respond to — the extent of the crisis, with both Pence and Trump promising and failing to supply enough test kits for the growing number of people falling ill across the country. The U.S. has managed to provide only 5 tests for every million people, whereas South Korea has supplied 3,692.

Yesterday, the federal government took a step toward addressing the grave shortage of tests for the virus with a $699,000 grant to the health care technology company Hologic. The grant came from a division of HHS known as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and will accelerate the development of the first rapid test for the new coronavirus. Once it’s completed, the high-throughput tests should be able to provide results to clinicians within three hours, according to HHS, which noted that it should be possible to process up to 1,000 of the tests in 24 hours. Unfortunately, just getting to the point when the FDA will begin considering the emergency use of the tests is still “a matter of weeks” off.

With the approval of a $8.3 billion coronavirus aid package on Friday, which includes more than $3 billion for HHS to spend on the development of treatments and a vaccine as well as masks, gowns, and other protective equipment, more government contracts will undoubtedly come soon. But scholars who study pandemics say the key to surviving them is doing as much as possible before crisis hits.

“If you’re really thinking through this, you plan for it. You don’t resist government planning for fear of creeping socialism up until you have reports of a pathogen clearly killing your citizens,” said Joshua Garoon, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied international preparedness for pandemics.

Garoon is especially concerned that the particularly American lack of social supports such as paid sick time will worsen the epidemic in this country and put low-income workers who can’t afford to stay home at the highest risk of contracting the virus. European countries are far better prepared in part because of their safety nets, he said. “In France you have much better protections in place for helping businesses help employees stay home and get compensated.”

As the number of new coronavirus cases climbs throughout the U.S., the failure of government science policy to anticipate threats is even more striking. “The reason the coronavirus is a problem now is because, when we were dealing with SARS and MERS and research showed that bats harbored other viruses, nothing was done about it,” said Robert Klitzman, referring to viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past and are, like the new coronavirus, thought to be hosted by bats. “Funding was not spent for research for the development of vaccines then, even though many public health people said it was only a matter of time before those viruses got into the human population,” said Klitzman, who is a physician and director of the bioethics master’s program at Columbia University.

Even as the entire country is focused on the issue of disaster preparedness, the U.S. appears to be once again failing to prepare for future outbreaks. According to an announcement of new funding opportunities BARDA released last week, the agency, which is responsible for protecting the American people from public health emergencies, has now suspended work on projects involving anthrax, Sudan ebolavirus, Marburg virus, smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers, and antimicrobial resistant threats.

As a note printed in red throughout the document explains, that work is now on hold: “BARDA will only accept submissions related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus or the COVID-19 disease until further notice.”

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