In response to mounting concern over the spreading Zika virus, the Obama administration on Monday asked Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the disease in the United States and abroad.
In a statement, the White House said the additional funds are needed to build on the nation’s ongoing efforts to combat the rapidly expanding virus; increase mosquito control programs; accelerate vaccine research and diagnostic development; enable the testing and procurement of vaccines; and educate health care providers.
The money would also be used to educate pregnant women and their partners. The Zika virus is thought to be associated with birth defect microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with small heads and brains.
“There is much that we do not yet know about Zika and its relationship to the poor health outcomes that are being reported in Zika-affected areas,” the White House said. “We must work aggressively to investigate these outbreaks, and mitigate, to the best extent possible, the spread of the virus. Congressional action on the administration’s request will accelerate our ability to prevent, detect, and respond to the Zika virus and bolster our ability to reduce the potential for future infectious disease outbreaks.”
It’s unclear how quickly Congress might act.
Senator Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, said he will meet tomorrow with HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to discuss the request. In an email to STAT this afternoon, he proposed using some of the remaining Emergency Ebola funding, now at $1.5 billion, to underwrite the Zika program.
“In December, we significantly increased funding for the NIH, CDC, and other agencies that deal with emerging threats,” Blunt said. “Given the Zika outbreak, protecting Americans, especially children, is an even higher priority moving forward.”
“Hopefully the president’s budget will explain how his request will prioritize this emerging threat. In the short term, there is still $1.5 billion in funding remaining in the Ebola response fund that the administration can use for other infectious disease response efforts. ”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest called Zika funding the kind of issue that shouldn’t break down along party lines. Yet asked whether Congress might try to ensure that any federal funds not be used for abortions — pregnant women who contract Zika are believed to be at heightened risk of delivering a child with birth defects — Earnest acknowledged the threat of a holdup.
Currently, federal funds may not be used for abortions, with certain exemptions.
“Hopefully questions like that will not impede Congress’s ability to act quickly,” Earnest said.
The bulk of the request, $1.48 billion, would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, for mosquito control, improving response in the states, implementing surveillance, and improving birth defect registries across the country. The administration also asked for $250 million for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which would fund a temporary one-year increase in health service assistance to Puerto Rico. Another $200 million would be allotted for development of vaccines and diagnostic testing not only for Zika, but also for chikungunya virus, which is carried by the same mosquitos that transmit Zika.
The administration is also seeking $210 million to establish a new and urgent emerging threat fund to address the Zika virus and other outbreaks. This money would also be available to states for emerging public health problems. There are also funds requested for the US Agency for International Development and the State Department.