As Monkeypox Spreads, US Vaccine Access Is Pitifully Inadequate

Nearly 17,000 monkeypox cases have been reported in 75 countries. The World Health Organization has declared the spread of the disease a global emergency. Despite nearly 3,000 cases being reported in 44 states, the U.S. has not declared a public emergency. New York alone has reported over 900 cases. Due to a shortage of vaccines, rollout of the vaccine was impeded. Joe Osmundson is a professor of microbiology at New York University. We talk to him about the queerphobic myths surrounding the virus spread, inequity in vaccine distribution, and many other topics. “This should have been an easy virus to contain,” says Osmundson. “The immense frustration in our community has been watching hundreds of people get sick, not because they’re having sex, not because of their queer identity, but because they’ve wanted to get vaccinated and those vaccines have not been available.” Osmundson also describes how he helped a friend get treatment for monkeypox. His new book is Virology: Essays on the Living, the Dead, And the Small Things Between.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: More than 17,000 monkeypox cases have been reported in at least 75 countries, which includes the United States. Monkeypox isn’t fatal, but it can cause fever, rashes and extremely painful lesions. It’s most often spread through close, intimate physical contact. The World Health Organization declared an emergency worldwide to stop the spread of the disease on Saturday, the second such declaration in two years. It was last year for COVID-19, this time for monkeypox. This is WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region, where we assess the risk is high. There is a clear chance of further international spread. However, interference with international traffic remains low at the moment. We now have an epidemic that has spread rapidly around the globe via new transmission routes, about which we do not know enough, and which meets the International Health Regulations. All of these reasons have led me to declare the global monkeypox epidemic a public health emergency of international significance. …

Stigmatization and discrimination can be just as dangerous as any virus. In addition to our recommendations to countries, I’m also calling on civil society organizations, including those with experience in working with people living with HIVTo work with us in fighting stigmatization and discrimination. We have the tools to stop transmission and bring down this epidemic.

AMY GOODMAN: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has reported more than 2,800 cases so far of monkeypox in 44 states. The largest outbreaks have been in New York, California and Illinois. The White House has not declared an emergency of public health, which could help to strengthen the U.S. response against the monkeypox epidemic. White House COVID response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said, quote, “It’s an ongoing, but a very active conversation at HHS.” That’s the Department of Health and Human Services.

For more, we’re joined by Joe Osmundson, professor of microbiology at New York University, scientist, activist, author of the new book Virology: Essays on the Living, the Dead, And the Small Things Between. He’s featured In a new piece in The New Yorker headlined “The Agony of an Early Case of Monkeypox.”

The piece begins, quote, “On the evening before Juneteenth, Joseph Osmundson, one of my best friends and a microbiologist at N.Y.U., texted me: ‘We think Andy has monkeypox.’ Two nights earlier, our friend Andy, as I’ll call him, had spent hours hunched over in an emergency room with excruciating rectal pain, only to be refused testing. It was his third time trying in five days. Andy’s anal sores were internal; for patients to qualify for testing, C.D.C. Guidelines required that lesions be visible on the skin. Osmundson needed help.”

Well, Professor Joe Osmundson, that’s the opening paragraph of the piece in The New Yorker. Tell us where you went. Describe monkeypox in the process.

JOE OSMUNDSON: Yeah. I’ll actually start with the second part. Monkeypox does not represent a new disease. This is why our community has been so frustrated at the lack of urgency to get the tools we need to take care of ourselves and prevent this virus from spreading. It was first identified in animals in 1958 and then was demonstrated to exist in humans in 1970. It’s a virus that’s related to smallpox. You mentioned earlier that it’s not deadly. It’s not very often deadly, but in this outbreak so far this year, there have been five deaths, all of them in the endemic region between Congo and Nigeria. It’s a virus that is similar to smallpox but less dangerous. It can cause pockmarks and high fever all over the body. The lesions can occur in the throat, the mouth, the anus and the rectum. They can be extremely painful. The course of infection can last up to four weeks. Patients are asked to isolate the entire body during this period.

So, again, it’s a pretty miserable virus, although it’s not very often deadly. The frustration has been that because it’s so closely related to smallpox, we actually, prior to this sort of explosion of monkeypox outside of the endemic region — we have FDAWe have approved tests FDAWe have approved medications that may ease suffering and, most importantly of all, vaccines that can prevent infection. All of these tools are available, but they have been extremely difficult to access. Even Andy, who has a Ph.D. and has friends who are working on the answer. It took him calling contacts at the New York City Department of Health as well as the federal government to get tested. It took another few days to get him access after he had been tested and assumed positive. TPOXXThis is again an example of an FDAWe thought it would help. Once he got it, he was able to get the medication. TPOXXHe went from being in the worst pain of his life to feeling relieved in less than 24 hours. In five to six days, his lesions had completely healed and he was free to leave isolation.

We have the tools to prevent infections and ease suffering. The immense frustration in our community has been watching hundreds of people get sick, not because they’re having sex, not because of their queer identity, but because they’ve wanted to get vaccinated and those vaccines have not been available.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’re here in Chelsea, New York, and this is where people lined up around the block to get vaccines, but there simply weren’t enough.

JOE OSMUNDSON: That’s right. This is why the rollout of New York’s Health Care Reform has come under a lot scrutiny. And, you know, the New York City Department of Health didn’t reach out to community partners prior to that. They wanted to get some shots in the arm before Pride weekend. They’ve been listening to us about how that didn’t go well, and they are trying to do better. They are reaching out more community-based organizations. They’re trying to have more vaccine equity in nonwhite, less affluent communities than the Chelsea community. But they are very limited. It is impossible to have equity when vaccines are so scarce. It’s just not possible.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to mention the protest that took part in New York City last Thursday. ACT UP New York organized an urgent march against monkeypox in New York City. Cecilia Gentili (founder of Transgender Equity Consulting) spoke at the rally.

CECILIA GENTILI: Sex workers are being forced to make difficult choices about their health and their ability to pay the bills. Sounds familiar. Yes. Yes. [beep]It happened a few months ago COVID. What did the government do? It did almost nothing. What is the government doing right now? It does almost nothing. I am tired of getting so little from the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Joe Osmundson: Can you tell us what needs to be done? This weekend, Congressman Adam Schiff is demanding more. You have Ashish Jha on the weekend news shows saying they haven’t decided whether to make the — call this a national emergency in the U.S. And if it were called an emergency, what would that unleash?

JOE OSMUNDSON: Yes, it would increase the number of tools and funding available. There’s a couple of things going on here. One is the scientific and biomedical responses, which are completely absent. There is no urgency. This should have been an easy virus for you to contain. It is not recommended. COVIDWe have all the tools we need, unlike many emerging threats. They are kept in a stockpile. The point of that stockpile is that it’s meant to be there to respond to an emergency. We have an emergency and the stockpile is not activated. We found out that vaccine sits in the stockpile in such a way that it can’t actually get into people’s bodies. A freezer is useless for vaccine. So, we need resources to mobilize the national stockpile that we have to help us, to keep us safe, to treat us when we’re ill.

But we also know — look, COVID is — you know, a lot of us, by now, have done COVID isolation, 10 days, even five days. It is extremely difficult. It can be expensive. Sometimes you have to miss work. Sometimes you will need to rent a hotel to be alone. It can be difficult. We have a two- to six-week isolation with monkeypox. That is incredibly disruptive for people’s lives. We’ve been having to crowdfund to get people the money that they need to take time off work. We need emergency funds and hotels so people can isolate themselves to stop the spread of the disease. None of these funds or resources have come from any government level.

There are also important scientific questions. Is the virus in semen? Can we develop new tests that don’t require a skin lesion? Can we test saliva during early-on flu-like illnesses? These are obvious questions. These are obvious questions that will not be answered without proper funding. The ideal situation is that we answer these scientific questions as quickly as possible. Instead of skin lesion tests, we have excellent saliva tests. If you think you might have monkeypox, go in and have a saliva test. TPOXX immediately, and maybe you don’t even get an outbreak of skin lesions, or if you do, you suffer much less, and you’re much less likely to spread the virus. The vaccine is absurd. There are people who want to get vaccine. But instead of getting vaccine they get monkeypox.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Osmundson, this whole controversy over whether to call this a sexually transmitted disease — you can also get it just in close breathing contact, isn’t that right?

JOE OSMUNDSON: That’s right. It’s a very tricky, you know, question. And there are obviously STIs that don’t require sex to transmit them, like herpes. But I’m really worried. We’re already seeing this pushback of, “Oh, if monkeypox is an STI, why are we seeing it in children?” — sort of, again, doing the groomer thing, implying that queer people are having sex with children. This is dangerous and incredibly frightening.

This is a virus that commonly spreads throughout households when it’s in households. It is found on sheets. It’s on towels. It’s on clothes. And we need to be aware of those nonsexual modes of transmission, so that if it pops up in a wrestling team or a massage parlor or a Broadway show where someone is handling costumes all the time, we actually — that’s on our radar, and we can diagnose it in those places and prevent spread there. I think it’s a little bit myopic to be so focused on sex and the queer community. WeMonkeypox is spreading, US Vaccine Access is pitifully inadequateYou must be open-minded to the possibility of this virus spreading to other places.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Osmundson, let’s talk about the issue of global equity. The United States is suffering from a severe shortage in vaccines. But multiply that number by many. Think about the rest of the globe.

JOE OSMUNDSON: This was a choice. This international outbreak was not an option. The United States government allowed 28 million doses to the modern smallpox vaccination. JYNNEOSThese items are not allowed to expire and must be disposed of from the national stockpile. I was part of a webinar with the Nigerian Head of the CDC. CDC, who laughed when I asked, “What countermeasures do you have? Do you have a vaccine? Do you have treatment?” They have nothing. If in Nigeria, where there’s been an ongoing outbreak of human-to-human spread of monkeypox since 2017, if they had countermeasures there to care for this painful infection there, it’s likely that we may have prevented the international spread of this virus.

Infectious diseases are a reminder that borders are meaningless. Because people interact all over the globe, viruses will spread. Not only will it prevent us from getting sick, but because we are all subject to human suffering. Countermeasures, such as global vaccines and treatment, are absolutely necessary. Capitalism doesn’t make us well-equipped to care for everyone. It is not a way for anyone to make a profit. We will see more of these types of crises in our increasingly connected and warming world. This is not a viral crises; it is a crisis that has impacted late capitalism.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe Osmundson: I want to thank for being here, professor of microbiology, New York University, activist, and author of the new book Virology: Essays on the Living, the Dead, And the Small Things Between. We’ll also lInk to that piece in The New Yorker This includes Professor Osmundson.

We return to California Congressmember Ro Khanna to discuss his efforts to address the infant formula crisis affecting working-class families and parents with children of color, and to end the price gouging. Stay with us.