The failure of Congress to approve emergency funding to respond to Zika is impeding the efforts of two key US scientific agencies, the heads of the institutions said Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are being forced to resort to a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach, diverting money from other needed programs to fund efforts against the disease, their directors suggested.
“This is a serious situation that we really need to step to the plate, and we need to step to the plate very, very intensively,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, scientific director of NIAID, told reporters. “We’re already doing that, but we can’t sustain it if we don’t have the support that we need.”
Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, warned that the United States will continue to see infected travelers returning home. There may be some local spread of Zika in parts of the country and there may be more infants born with birth defects caused by the virus.
There has already been one, a baby with microcephaly born in Hawaii. The woman who gave birth to the baby spent the early part of her pregnancy in Brazil.
“There’s much more to be done. And the sooner we get ample resources for a response, the more effectively we can protect pregnant women,” said Frieden, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Puerto Rico, which is expected to be hit hard with Zika.
President Obama has asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency response funds to fight the Zika virus. But senior Republicans on the House panel that would have to approve the request — the Appropriations Committee — are insisting the administration first dip into $1.4 billion in unused Ebola response money.
Federal health officials insist those funds are still needed for ongoing Ebola projects. And so a stalemate has ensued.
Frieden noted the rainy season will soon start in Puerto Rico. With the rains come huge surges in the populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which transmit Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses.
“I’m very concerned that before the year is out, there could be hundreds of thousands of Zika infections in Puerto Rico and thousands of infected pregnant women,” the CDC director said.
Already, the local department of health is aware of 14 pregnant women who have been infected with the virus.
Fauci described having to divert funding from programs to develop a so-called universal flu vaccine — one that would protect against multiple strains — as well as from work on vaccines for HIV and respiratory syncytial virus. RSV causes cold-like symptoms in most adults but can trigger severe illness in young children and the elderly.
“We’re going to have to slow down at least one and maybe all three of those,” said Fauci. Early work on experimental Zika vaccines can be funded this way, but more advanced research will need dedicated dollars — and soon, he suggested.
“If we don’t get that money, we may find ourselves halfway through a Phase 1 trial and not being able to finish and be able to take that next immediate step into the larger trial,” said Fauci.
“That’s what I’m concerned about, that if we don’t get the money the president asked for, that’s going to slow down a number of things. Not just vaccine — but vaccine is the most concrete one that will be slowed down,” he added.
Frieden said the CDC’s dengue work is virtually on hold as all staff members at the dengue branch in San Juan — where the CDC dengue branch is located — have shifted over to work in Zika. The same is true for work on tick-borne diseases, normally done at the CDC’s facility in Fort Collins, Colo., he said.
Even work on antibiotic resistance done at CDC laboratories in Atlanta “is having to take a back seat to Zika,” Frieden said.
“From the CDC’s standpoint, we are scraping together every dime that we can to respond to this. It’s not easy to do that and it makes the response much more complex and much less smooth.”
Without new funding, it’s difficult to plan for mosquito control operations in Puerto Rico or to do surveillance needed to figure out where in the US mosquitoes that can transmit Zika virus are found.
“We don’t really know where these mosquitos are in the US,” Frieden admitted. “The maps that are on our website are very cleared tagged with the comment that they are both incomplete and out of date.”
Both Frieden and Fauci expressed concern about where the outbreak is heading. “Unfortunately, the more we learn, the worse things seem to get,” said Fauci.