Funding Needed Urgently for Zika Virus, Officials Tell Senators

  • $1.8 billion request faces skepticism on size, timing
  • Administration opposes tapping Ebola money for new crisis

The Obama administration’s top health officials pitched senators Tuesday on the urgency of their $1.8 billion request to combat the Zika virus and warned against diverting funding to fight Ebola.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell pointed to Puerto Rico in particular, where officials fear the virus could spread rapidly.

“We need to put those things in place now,” she told reporters, referring to mosquito control and other programs.

Requests for additional funding face a high hurdle in the Republican-led Congress. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican health appropriator, questioned Tuesday whether the government needed the money urgently, given that some emergency Ebola-related funding Congress provided in 2014 remains unspent.

Burwell said the Ebola money is being used for a variety of programs to ensure that disease doesn’t make a comeback, including funding committed over a five-year period to countries in Africa in partnership with other countries around the world.

“We believe we need to finish the job in terms of Ebola,” she said. “We want to do both of them, we’re going to do both, but this is why we believe the money is important, and it’s urgent.”

Bipartisan Group

After Burwell and senior U.S. health officials met with a bipartisan group of Senate leaders, Blunt said he would consider the funding request.

“We’re open to funding and we’ll talk about how much you need and how you’re going to spend it,” Blunt said.

He said that usually in the past such emergencies have not required offsets, although he said that would have to be discussed by senators.

Two senior officials -- Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases -- are scheduled to make their pitches for Zika funding before two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on Wednesday and Blunt’s Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

Research Spending

The government needs to invest in learning more about the Zika virus, including at what point in a pregnancy the virus could affect a fetus, Burwell said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” said Frieden.

Frieden outlined the fear that areas that have had outbreaks of Dengue fever in the U.S. -- Texas, Florida and other Southern states in particular -- could see Zika spread and will need to put in place mosquito controls as well as tracking and diagnosis measures.

“We are very concerned with having a rapid spread of Zika” in Puerto Rico, he said. “They are at real risk.”

Fauci said a first trial of a vaccine could start this summer and a Phase 2 trial could start next year with the funding.

“We’re on a very accelerated track for vaccine development,” he said.

The government has already warned pregnant women not to travel to areas with a Zika outbreak for fear of dire birth defects.

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