White House readying emergency coronavirus budget request

White House will request a $130 million emergency budget to fund the US coronavirus response, quarantines and vaccine development, official says

  • The HHS is working with the White House to prepare to request emergency funding to address the coronavirus outbreak 
  • Already the US has had to cover quarantines on military bases, screening at entry points and the development and distribution of a test for the virus 
  • Thirty-five Americans and nearly 80,000 people worldwide have been infected
  • Experts are cautioning that the virus’s spread is reaching a ‘tipping point’ at which it may become a pandemic 
  • A senior official told AP that a budget request is expected this week 
  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar is slated to testify between the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday 

The White House is readying an urgent budget request to address the deadly coronavirus outbreak whose rapid spread is spooking financial markets and restricting international travel.

The request is still being developed but is likely to come this week, a senior administration official confirmed Monday. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already tapped into an emergency infectious disease rapid response fund and is seeking to transfer more than $130 million from other HHS accounts to combat the virus but is pressing for more.

Additional funds are needed to cover the costs of quarantines at military bases, airport, port and border screening efforts as well as to expedite the development of potential vaccines and treatments for the virus that has killed more than 2,600 people worldwide. 

HHS Secretary Azar is slated to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, and the US response to the outbreak is sure to be a major topic as the White House and HHS prepare to request additional emergency funding (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The outbreak, which began in December in China’s Hubei province, has already outpaced both SARS and MERS, the last new coronaviruses to emerge and spread around the globe, beginning in 2002 and 2012, respectively. 

With nearly 80,000 cases worldwide, the unforeseeable outbreak has taken a toll not only on human health but global economies.  


What is this virus?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been identified as a new type of coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large family of pathogens, most of which cause mild lung infections such as the common cold.

But coronaviruses can also be deadly. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is caused by a coronavirus and killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in the early 2000s.

Can the Wuhan coronavirus kill?

Yes – more than 2,600 people have so far died after testing positive for the virus.

What are the symptoms?

The infection which the virus causes has been named COVID-19. Some people who catch it may not have any symptoms at all, or only very mild ones like a sore throat or a headache.

Others may suffer from a fever, cough or trouble breathing. 

And a small proportion of patients will go on to develop severe infection which can damage the lungs or cause pneumonia, a life-threatening condition which causes swelling and fluid build-up in the lungs.

How is it detected?

The virus’s genetic sequencing was released by scientists in China and countries around the world have used this to create lab tests, which must be carried out to confirm an infection.

Delays to these tests, to test results and to people getting to hospitals in China, mean the number of confirmed cases is expected to be just a fraction of the true scale of the outbreak.  

How did it start and spread?

The first cases identified were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

Cases have since been identified around China and are known to have spread from person to person.

What are countries doing to prevent the spread?

Countries all over the world have banned foreign travellers from crossing their borders if they have been to China within the past two weeks. Many airlines have cancelled or drastically reduced flights to and from mainland China.

Is it similar to anything we’ve ever seen before?

Experts have compared it to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The epidemic started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in mainland China, Hong Kong and elsewhere.



Oxford Economics have estimated the coronavirus and the illness it causes – now known as COVID-19 – could cost the world economy $1.1 trillion in lost profits. 

But slowing or stopping the spread of the new respiratory disease before it can further deplete global productivity means spending more up front.  

The US has – or had – a reserve of some $105 million for exactly these kind of public health calamities.  

That money quickly dwindled to nothing as the HHS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scrambled to design and implement travel restrictions, reroute tens of thousands of incoming passengers to the US from China, set up quarantines, disseminate a diagnostic test and initiate vaccine and drug development.  

Among the beneficiaries of additional funds would be the Pentagon, which is housing evacuees from China – who are required to undergo 14-day quarantines – at several military bases in California.

Military bases there and in Texas, Washington and Nebraska scrambled to set themselves up as quarantines and give wary travelers the warmest welcome to confinement possible. 

But transporting, housing, feeding and monitoring the health of some 800 people, unexpectedly, has been no small or cheap feat. 

And these measures were really just the beginning of the many steps it takes to address the outbreak that’s stuck 35 Americans so far. 

Screening for the virus at ports and even via lab tests administered to quarantined Americans continues to be an imperfect process, one the government would like to bolster, while also ramping up drug and vaccine development.

Democrats controlling the House wrote HHS Secretary Alex Azar earlier this month to request funds to help speed development of a coronavirus vaccine, expand laboratory capacity, and beef up screening efforts at US entry points. 

It’s difficult to estimate what the total cost of this nearly-unprecedent outbreak could be, but vaccine development alone may cost $200-$500 million – for any one of the several the US government has partnered to create. 

Azar is slated to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, and the US response to the outbreak is sure to be a major topic.

The White House budget office, led by Russell Vought, a stout conservative, is working with HHS to shape the request, with the agency seeking more than the White House is likely to approve. 

There is a receptive audience for the request on Capitol Hill, though stand-alone emergency spending bills can be tricky to pass since they are invariably a target for lawmakers seeking add-ons.

The quickly spreading virus has slammed the economy of China, where the virus originated, and caseloads are rapidly increasing in countries such as South Korea, Iran, and Italy.

The official required anonymity because the request is not public.

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