Zika Emergency Funding Can’t Wait, White House Tells Congress

An infant in Brazil born with microcephaly is examined by a neurologist. The Zika virus is thought to cause microcephaly. An infant in Brazil born with microcephaly is examined by a neurologist. The Zika virus is thought to cause microcephaly. Felipe Dana / AP

This story has been updated

Efforts to thwart the spread of the Zika virus should be funded immediately, before tourist traffic and the rainy season hit the Caribbean and Central America, the Obama administration warned on Wednesday.

Stepping up pressure on a Congress behind on its budget schedule, White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan announced that agencies have identified $589 million – including $510 million of existing Ebola resources within the Health and Human Services Department and the State Department with USAID -- “that can quickly be redirected and spent on immediate, time-critical activities such as mosquito control, lab capacity, development of diagnostics and vaccines.”

The administration in February had requested an emergency infusion of $1.9 billion to combat the mosquito-borne virus that particularly threatens pregnant women and their children, who risk contracting microcephaly. But Congress suggested agencies re-direct existing funds from last year’s campaign to combat Ebola in West Africa. Donovan said that even though agencies have identified funds that can be redirected, lawmakers must not delay in meeting the administration’s full request.

“Given the uncertainty and risk, we should not play with fire,” Donovan said in a conference call with reporters that was followed by a blog post. “The American people should not have to be panicked for Congress to do their job.”

The budget director said the administration “has always been open to using existing funds, but that’s not sufficient” because the repurposed funds will run out and delay or eventually halt actions to raise public awareness and reduce the mosquito population in such locations as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa. “It’s unacceptable to be in a position of choosing between funding Zika or Ebola,” he said.

Asked to respond, Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman Stephen Worley told Government Executive, “It makes sense for the administration to use existing funds to address the Zika outbreak. In the meantime, the committee will continue, throughout the regular appropriations process, to confer with administration officials and outside experts to determine a thoughtful, timely and fiscally responsible response to global public health threats.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell told reporters there are 672 confirmed Zika cases in the continental United States and its territories, 64 of them pregnant women. Citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map, she said cases have been confirmed in cities as far north as San Francisco, Kansas City and New York City. She said CDC has 31 employees working at a converted Dengue clinic in Puerto Rico to protect the blood supply, control mosquitos and educate the public on the risks. A summit on Zika last week drew participation from 30 states, Burwell added, and the National Institutes of Health is planning a phase 1 trial of five vaccine candidates for September.

 “Without funding, we do risk undermining our ability to respond,” Burwell stressed. “We face global challenges from Zika and Ebola, and we don’t have the option of setting aside one for the other.”

Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of State for management and resources, told reporters that State on Tuesday had sent Congress notice under a provision of the fiscal 2015 appropriations act that her department has begun redirecting funds toward Zika. Donovan stressed that State’s move does not affect other agencies’ spending on Zika.

Citing the importance of “our foremost duty to protect the health and safety of U.S. citizens,” Higginbottom said State and USAID were working with the World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization on a Zika prevention campaign of “aggressive, proactive worldwide implementation.”

But State, she added, “must continue to be vigilant in West Africa,” where the Ebola situation remains a live issue. “Without new funding, we won’t be able to control mosquitos, educate or care for mothers and children,” she said. “We must begin now, before the summer months and the rainy season in the Caribbean and Central America increase the risks for more Americans.”

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., in February wrote to Donovan urging “the administration to pursue the use of current unobligated funds, including Ebola funds, to meet the immediate needs of response to the Zika outbreak.”

On Wednesday, Rogers and Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said via email, "More than a month ago we called on the administration to use existing funding and legal authorities to provide the most immediate and effective response to the Zika outbreak. We are pleased to hear today that federal agencies are heeding our call. These resources – which the agencies already have on hand – will help stop the growth of this devastating disease around the world, and prepare for and protect against outbreaks within our borders.

“We will look carefully at the details of today’s proposal by the administration to ensure the best and most effective use of these funds, and to provide proper oversight.  As we move forward, the Appropriations Committee will continue to monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis to assure the resources necessary for the response are available.”

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