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The House of Representatives Chamber at the US Capitol. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

US Congress approves US$7.8B for emergency virus spending

The House of Representatives Chamber at the US Capitol. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The House passed a US$7.8-billion emergency spending bill Wednesday to fund the US Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Senate will vote on the measure later this week and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bipartisan Bill, passed 415-2, is more than triple the amount Trump last week proposed spending to deal with the virus. In addition to US$7.8 billion that would be appropriated, the measure waives restrictions on a Medicare telehealth programme to let recipients get remote care at an estimated cost of US$500 million.

Vice-President Mike Pence said Wednesday at a meeting with House Democrats that the Administration supports the spending bill, lawmakers said. There are more than 100 cases of coronavirus infection in the US, Pence said earlier, and 11 people have died. Total cases globally have topped 93,000.

US Vice-President Mike Pence (right) speaks while Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator, listens during a meeting with Coronavirus Task Force members and Diagnostic Lab CEOs at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
(Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

The Bill, H.R. 6074, would reimburse state and local governments for the cost of preparing for and fighting the virus. It includes US$3.1 billion to stockpile medical supplies and US$300 million for government purchases of tests, vaccines and therapies to ensure that the poor have access.

Republicans Ken Buck of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona voted against the measure.

Lawmakers spent much of this week haggling over how to ensure that a coronavirus vaccine is affordable for Americans. The Bill seeks to ensure that the federal government pays a fair price for vaccines, and it allows the Health and Human Services secretary to regulate the commercial price. Democrats had initially sought a stricter price cap.

A group of House Democrats met with executives from Sanofi, Merck & Co, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co, and GlaxoSmithKline Plc on Wednesday and were told it could take as long as two years to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

Executives from GlaxoSmithKline, along with their counterparts from Sanofi, Merck & Co, and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co, told Democratic representatives that it may take two years to develop a coronavirus vaccine. (Photo: Business Insider)

Another US$1.25 billion will be directed to combatting the spread of the virus overseas and there is $US1 billion in loan subsidies to provide US$7 billion in low-interest loans to small businesses.

Republicans put the cost of the final measure at US$7.8 billion, while Democrats also counted the US$500 million in Medicare funds to make a total of US$8.3 billion.

Trump originally asked for US$1.25 billion in new funds along with permission to take another US$1.25 billion from other government social and health programmes, though he said he would welcome whatever spending Congress approves.

“This should not be about politics; this is about doing our job to protect the American people from a potential pandemic,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said in a statement. “We worked together to craft an aggressive and comprehensive response that provides the resources the experts say they need to combat this crisis.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama congressman, said Democrats and Republicans “worked together to craft an aggressive and comprehensive response that provides the resources the experts say they need to combat this crisis”.
(Photo: Alabama Public Radio)

The money in the spending bill won’t be taken from any other existing government funds, and lawmakers added provisions to prevent Trump from using the new funds for other projects such as his southern border wall. Lawmakers have said that additional money may be needed later to combat the coronavirus.

— Bloomberg