WASHINGTON — President Obama warned Thursday that the fight against the Zika virus was reaching a critical stage, with local transmission confirmed in southern Florida, and implored Congress to “do its job” and approve funding to support the effort.
In his opening remarks at a Pentagon press conference, Obama reiterated that the administration was running out of the money that it had redirected from an Ebola emergency fund earlier this year.
“Now the money that we need to fight Zika is running out,” Obama said. “The situation is getting critical.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell told lawmakers in a Wednesday letter that the funding for vaccine development at the National Institutes of Health would be depleted by the end of August — even as human trials for a Zika vaccine began this week.
There have been about 15 suspected cases of local transmission of Zika in Florida, and the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning urging pregnant women to avoid the area of Miami where the virus is believed to have spread.
“This is not the time for politics,” Obama said. “A lot of folks talk about protecting Americans from threats? Well, Zika is a serious threat to Americans, especially babies, right now.”
The president did not explicitly call for a special session in Congress to pass the funding, though he did note that “Congress is on summer recess.” Lawmakers left town last month at an impasse, after Senate Democrats balked at a deal negotiated by House and Senate Republicans that included provisions affecting Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Democrats sent a letter Thursday to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan urging them to reconvene Congress and pass the original $1.1 billion Senate bill that earned support from Democrats and Republicans.
A McConnell spokesman told STAT earlier this week, when asked about the prospects for a special session, that the GOP-negotiated bill could potentially be passed quickly if Democrats dropped their opposition. “But it doesn’t sound like they’re prepared to do that,” the spokesman said.
Obama, meanwhile, clearly sought to ramp up the pressure on Republican leadership with his remarks Thursday.
“Once again, I want to urge the American people to call their members of Congress and tell them to do their job,” Obama said. “Deal with this threat, and help protect the American people from Zika.”