The Biden administration has officially declared monkeypox a public health emergency, a move that’s aimed at freeing up emergency funding and improving distribution of vaccines and treatments.
“We are prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a briefing.
The announcement comes amid intense criticism that the Biden administration failed to recognize the severity of the outbreak, leading to shortages of vaccine doses and diagnostic tests even as demand has soared.
The nation has already purchased much of the global supply of Jynneos, the only monkeypox vaccine licensed in the U.S., but much of it is stored frozen in bulk substance. It needs to undergo a process called “fill and finish” to put the vaccine into usable vials to be shipped and then administered.
Some public health experts fear the U.S. lost its opportunity to contain and even eliminate the virus.
The administration has been under pressure to declare a public health emergency from health advocates and congressional Democrats who represent some of the hardest-hit states.
A public health emergency won’t ease the shortages of vaccines, but it could expedite the approval process for new treatments and provide more flexibility for federal agencies to respond to the outbreak.
“This public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments work quickly out to the impacted communities. And it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track and attack this outbreak,” said Robert Fenton, the administration’s newly-appointed national coordinator for the monkeypox response.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known monkeypox infections top 6,600, nearly all among men who have sex with men. New York state is the epicenter of the outbreak, with almost a third of all cases, followed by California.
The administration’s announcement comes after New York, Illinois and California all declared their own public health emergencies.
The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the outbreak on July 23.
The announcement was met with praise from congressional Democrats, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, who was among the lawmakers calling for the declaration.
“This critical step will allow the Biden Administration to build on the progress it has already made to expand the availability of vaccines, testing, and treatment nationwide,” Maloney said in a statement.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the announcement “welcome news,” and urged the administration to do more to ensure quick distribution of vaccines to areas that need it most.
“As we learned from the COVID crisis, we must act swiftly and decisively to get ahead and stay ahead of this virus,” Pelosi said.
Yet the administration’s response has been anything but swift, according to top Senate Republicans.
“A communicable disease outbreak following so closely on the heels of COVID-19 should be met with a swift, decisive, and organized response. Instead, HHS is repeating the exact same mistakes they made during the pandemic: painfully slow to begin testing, wholly disorganized in distributing vaccines and treatments, and messaging that’s confusing and outdated,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the Senate Health Committee.
Burr sent a letter to Becerra on Thursday demanding details on the agency’s plan to combat and contain monkeypox.
In a separate letter to Becerra, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) called out the administration’s seeming lack of transparency for not sharing funding requests with Republicans.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, called the emergency declaration “a pivotal turning point in the monkeypox response,” but cautioned the window to contain the virus is closing rapidly.
“Up until now the administration has repeated all the mistakes we have seen on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, including sporadic testing, incomplete data, and severe shortages of drugs and vaccines. But the White House has the wind at its back,” Gostin said.