As monkeypox continues to rise in the United States, the Biden administration plans to declare a public health emergency perhaps as early as Thursday, according to a federal official familiar with the discussions.
The statement would signal that the outbreak now poses a significant threat to Americans and would set in motion a variety of measures designed to turn the tide. It would give federal agencies the power to expedite vaccines and medicines, access emergency funding and hire additional staff to help deal with the outbreak that began in May.
The World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on July 23 because of the outbreak.
Supply of the monkeypox vaccine, called Jynneos, has been severely curtailed and the administration has been criticized for being too slow to increase the number of doses. Declaring an emergency wouldn’t alleviate this shortage, but it could provide faster access to tecovirimat, the drug recommended to treat the disease.
News of the government’s plans was first reported by the Washington Post.
As of Wednesday, the United States had recorded nearly 7,000 cases of monkeypox, with the highest rates per capita in Washington, New York and Georgia. More than 99 percent of cases involve men who have sex with men.
The virus is mainly transmitted through close physical contact; the infection is rarely fatal – no fatalities have been reported here – but can be very painful. The United States has one of the highest rates in the world, and the number is expected to rise as surveillance and testing improves.
What you should know about Monkeypox virus
What is monkeypox? Monkeypox is a virus similar to smallpox, but the symptoms are less severe. It was discovered in 1958 after outbreaks occurred in monkeys kept for research. The virus has been found mostly in parts of central and west Africa, but in recent weeks it has spread to dozens of countries and infected tens of thousands of people, mostly men who have sex with men. On July 23, the World Health Organization declared monkeypox a global health emergency.
Declaring monkeypox an emergency sends “a strong signal that this is important, that it needs to be treated now,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the WHO Advisory Board on monkeypox.
dr Rimoin is one of the scientific advisers who urged WHO to classify monkeypox as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” a designation the organization has used only seven times since 2007.
Because the panellists were divided on the matter, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, advised the advisers to declare monkeypox an emergency, a status currently held by only two other diseases, Covid-19 and polio.
The WHO statement called on member countries to take the outbreak seriously, allocate significant resources to contain it and work with other nations by sharing information, vaccines and medicines.
In the United States, calls for a stronger crackdown on monkeypox grew louder. Recently, Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, called on the Biden administration to ramp up vaccine manufacturing and distribution and develop a long-term strategy to fight the virus.
Senator Patty Murray, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the health committee, urged the Department of Health and Human Services to provide a detailed report on the steps it is taking to contain the outbreak.
The decision to declare an emergency may be politically unpopular, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease physician at Emory University in Atlanta. He noted that many congressmen have urged the government to lift the Covid-19 public health emergency.
Still, “I think it’s long overdue for the US to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency,” he said.
The emergency designation would allow the FDA to approve measures that can diagnose, prevent, or treat monkeypox without having to go through the agency’s usual comprehensive review. The agency relied heavily on this provision to speed up testing, vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.
Declaring an emergency also gives the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more access to information from health care providers and states. Federal agencies like the CDC cannot force states to share data on cases or vaccinations.
During the outbreak, federal health officials have regularly shared information about testing capacity or the number of vaccines shipped to states. However, the CDC’s data on the number of cases lags behind that of local health departments, and the number of people vaccinated or their demographic information is largely unavailable.
“Again, we are really challenged by the fact that we at the agency are not authorized to receive this data,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, at a recent event hosted by the Washington Post.
The agency is working to expand its access to government data, but in the meantime the information is patchy and unreliable. Local health departments are underfunded, understaffed and exhausted after more than two years of grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Declaring this monkeypox outbreak as a public health emergency is important, but even more important is strengthening the level of state and local coordination, closing our vaccine supply gaps, and obtaining funding from Congress to address this crisis,” he said he Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health and consultant to the WHO on monkeypox.
“Otherwise we are talking about a new endemic virus that is sinking its roots in this country.”