US sets aside $1.4bn for COVID as new variant emerges

President Joe Biden

The Biden administration has allocated $1.4 billion to new COVID-19 vaccines and drugs, as new SARS-CoV-2 variant BA.2.86 has started spreading in the US.

The latest round of funding, coming several months after the pandemic was declared over, and part of Project NextGen, includes $326 million for Regeneron to develop an updated monoclonal antibody therapy with broad neutralising activity against the virus.

The money provided under the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR) programme also covers $1 billion for new vaccine trials and a $100 million pot for novel vaccine and drug technologies.

The jury is still out about the potential for BA.2.86 to be a cause for concern, but the mutation-heavy variant – which seems to have emerged from Omicron BA.2 – is now spreading on three continents and is very different from previous SARS-CoV-2 strains.

The World Health Organization (WHO) currently classes it as a "variant under monitoring", but the main concern is that the BA.2.86's spike protein is very different, making it possible that current vaccines will provide limited protection, according to a report in the scientific journal Nature. There is also concern it may be harder to spot using diagnostic tests.

Hospitalisations for COVID-19 have started to rise in the US, but remain well below the levels seen this time last year. As of last week, the dominant variant in the US remains EG.5 or Eris, accounting for around a fifth of all cases, followed by other Omicron subvariants including FL.1.5.1 dubbed Fornax.

So far, just two cases of BA.2.86 have been identified in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with others reported in the UK, Denmark, and Israel. Just today, there were reports that it had been found in wastewater in Switzerland. However, scientists have said there are no signs yet that it will be more virulent than current strains.

"Project NextGen is a key part of the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to keeping people safe from COVID-19 variants," said US Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra.

"These awards are a catalyst for the programme – kickstarting efforts to more quickly develop vaccines and continue to ensure availability of effective treatments," he added.

For the Regeneron COVID-19 programme, HHS will fund up to 70% of the company's costs for certain clinical development activities. Regeneron said it anticipates starting human studies of the new antibody later this year.