WASHINGTON — The half-billion dollars that the White House has redirected to fighting the Zika virus won’t be sufficient over the long term, administration officials said Monday, warning that they won’t be able to get the help they need from pharmaceutical companies if Congress doesn’t approve more funding.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both emphasized during the daily White House press briefing that the more they learn about the virus, the more frightening it becomes.
So while the nearly $600 million that the administration has earmarked for Zika will help jumpstart the necessary response, they said it isn’t enough.
“The answer is I don’t have what I need right now,” Fauci said. The redirected money, most of it steered from funds that Congress approved to combat Ebola in 2014, was necessary because “we couldn’t just stop and wait for the money.”
“It will help bring us a little bit further, but it’s still not what we want,” he said. “When the president asked for $1.9 billion, we needed $1.9 billion.”
One big problem, Fauci said, is that pharmaceutical companies could be reluctant to work with the federal government if they don’t have confidence that there will be a stable source of money. In February, Fauci had told a Senate committee that pharmaceutical companies were coming forward to help with developing treatments for the virus.
“If they don’t perceive us as a reliable partner, they tend to back off a bit,” he said at the briefing, “and that would be the worst thing.”
Congressional Republicans had been reluctant to approve the White House’s requested funding for Zika, arguing that the administration should use what was left over from the Ebola crisis.
After the White House announced last week that it would move existing money, the GOP leaders on the House Appropriations Committee said they “will continue to monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis to assure the resources necessary for the response are available.”
Schuchat pointed out that multiyear studies, requiring significant resources, would be needed to understand the full scope of how the virus affects unborn children and infants.
“People are acting intensively right now,” she said, “but if additional resources aren’t coming, we won’t be able to commit to the long-term work that’s needed.”
Health officials aren’t anticipating a large outbreak in the continental United States, Schuchat said, but they must be prepared for one. The mosquito that transmits Zika ranges across 30 states; previous estimates had put the number at 12 states.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we thought,” she said. “We absolutely need to be ready.”