The Biden administration is declaring a public health emergency for the monkeypox outbreak in the United States, which now counts more infections from the virus than any other country in the world. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced the decision at a briefing with top public health officials Thursday.
“This public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more 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,” Robert Fenton, the newly appointed White House national monkeypox response coordinator, said at the briefing.
Over the last decade, nationwide emergency declarations like this have previously been made only for the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and the Zika virus outbreak in 2017.
As it did for COVID-19, official said the move by Becerra to declare an emergency could unlock a broad swath of flexibilities in funding and regulations to respond to the spread of monkeypox.
The public health emergency declaration could pave the way for the CDC to deploy more staff to respond to the outbreak, officials said, as well as to compel hospitals to share more data to track monkeypox patients. It could also help clear the way for resources to scale up vaccinations.
Since last week, the administration says it has distributed another 266,000 doses of the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine to states and territories that have ordered doses. Another 150,000 doses initially slated for delivery from vaccine maker Bavarian Nordic in October have been moved up to September.
Federal health officials also told reporters that they were weighing a separate move that would allow the Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorizations that could ease access to treatments and vaccines for the monkeypox outbreak.
One such authorization, first floated by a National Institutes of Health official earlier this week at a meeting with the World Health Organization, could allow for vaccinators to quintuple their supply by injecting smaller “intradermal” doses into the skin, instead of the “subcutaneous” method currently approved for Jynneos.
“We’re feeling very good about the intradermal approach and probably, within the next few days, short period of time, we’ll make a final decision about it,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf.
Federal health authorities also have on hand millions of long-expired doses of Jynneos stockpiled years ago, which are now being tested by Bavarian Nordic. If found to be viable — which a spokesperson acknowledged to CBS News earlier this month was “highly unlikely” — the doses could be cleared under an emergency use authorization for use.
Officials have said for weeks that they were mulling the move as the number of cases have swelled and demand for shots has far exceeded supply around the country.
The move comes as a growing number of jurisdictions, including several states and cities, as well as the World Health Organization have all deemed the outbreak an emergency.
This week, President Biden also tapped officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the CDC to helm the country’s monkeypox response from the White House.
On Wednesday, the CDC said it had tallied at least 6,617 infections across the country. All but two states — Montana and Wyoming — have reported spotting at least one infection.
“We do expect cases will continue to rise, as we’ve had more access to testing, people had more access to testing, before they go down again,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
The majority of infections are still believed to be spreading through close intimate contact among men who have sex with men. While no deaths have been reported, patients often endure at-times excruciatingly painful rashes and lesions that can last for weeks.
The CDC currently estimates that between 1.6 and 1.7 million Americans are in the groups currently being prioritized for vaccine: people who are living with HIV, who are men who have sex with men, and others who are at high risk for HIV.
Doctors have also responded to a handful of infections in other groups who are at higher risk of severe disease, like pregnant women and young children.
Beyond freeing up additional levers in the federal bureaucracy to respond to the outbreak, officials said they hoped the declaration would raise awareness around the growing outbreak.
“This is a very clear statement of the value of the lives of people who are in the LGBTQ community,” said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the White House’s deputy coordinator on the monkeypox response.
Only around 10% of nation’s monkeypox testing capacity is being used up right now, which works out to about 8,000 swabs from monkeypox cases per week. Officials say they expect the number of people with suspected monkeypox symptoms seeking out diagnoses, as well as doctors moving to test for the disease, will climb in the wake of the declaration.
“I think along with moving forward and accelerating some of the work we’re doing, I think it also represents an important commitment by the administration to the community,” said Daskalakis.