WASHINGTON — The emergency money the Obama administration wants to fight the Zika virus is stuck in Congress — and so far, there’s no sign that congressional Republicans are about to budge.
The top House Republicans on the committee that would have to act on President Obama’s request — which calls for $1.9 billion in emergency response funds — are continuing to insist that the administration should use the roughly $2.7 billion in unspent Ebola money first before asking Congress for more.
As of Monday, the House Appropriations Committee hasn’t scheduled any action on the emergency funding bill, and the committee’s top Republicans haven’t changed their position on the need to spend the Ebola money first, according to committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing.
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White House press secretary Josh Earnest scolded the House Republicans at his Monday press briefing, saying that while some Ebola money could be shifted to the fight against the Zika virus, “that is not a sufficient response to this significant challenge.”
“We need Congress to act,” Earnest said. The Zika money, he added, is needed for critical work to develop a vaccine and diagnostic tests, as well as “rapid response teams” that could mobilize when a Zika case is reported in the United States.
“There may be certain areas where we can take money from these Ebola accounts without undermining our ability to finish the job there. But to suggest that we can fight the Zika virus just by taking all the money that we use to fight Ebola, that would be both unwise in terms of finishing the fight against Ebola, but also would underresource the significant effort that we have in mind to try to protect the American people from Zika,” Earnest said.
The Senate Republicans who would handle the request aren’t refusing to act on it. They just haven’t made any decisions on what they’ll do with it, or whether they’ll treat it as emergency money, according to a Senate GOP aide.
There is still $1.4 billion in unspent Ebola funds at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as $1.3 billion at the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, according to the letter three top House Republican appropriators sent to the director of the Office of Management and Budget last month.
Federal health officials, however, have been telling Congress at hearings over the last few weeks that most of those Ebola funds are still needed for various projects, including strengthening the health systems of African countries to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks.
They’ve also stressed that even though Ebola has become a far less urgent problem, it hasn’t disappeared.
“Ebola is not over,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a House subcommittee hearing last week. He said there are still 84 CDC staffers in West Africa dealing with the aftermath of the outbreak, and that there was an Ebola case in Sierra Leone as recently as January.
He also said the Ebola money was intended to help CDC work over five years to strengthen health systems in those countries.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified that the National Institutes of Health’s share of the Ebola money was $238 million, and that only $9 million is left. He said those funds are needed for research on Ebola survivors and the development of an Ebola vaccine.
In the meantime, Fauci said, he’s already moving money from other programs to start research into a possible Zika virus vaccine — mostly to buy time until Congress approves the emergency money.
“We’re using money that we have to shift around from other places. We don’t have any really substantial money that’s left on Ebola,” he said.