WASHINGTON – The Obama administration warned Congress Wednesday that money to fight the Zika virus is on the verge of running out amid political stalemate on Capitol Hill.
In a letter to key lawmakers, the secretary of Health and Human Services said the National Institutes of Health would exhaust its resources for vaccine development by month’s end. The letter from HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said that without additional money the second phase of clinical trials would be delayed, and Americans would have to wait longer for a vaccine.
The news comes as the first local transmissions of the virus have been found in Miami and authorities are warning pregnant women to stay away from the area. The virus can cause severe birth defects.
Congress gridlocked over President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion emergency spending request after House Republicans added language on Planned Parenthood and other issues that was unacceptable to Democrats. Then lawmakers left town for a seven-week summer recess and they won’t be back until September.
Republicans have been downplaying the urgency of the issue, questioning why the administration has not spent more than $350 million already on hand, including money redirected from the Ebola fight. Burwell’s letter gives a detailed accounting.
The Centers for Disease Control has $222 million available for domestic response including front-line assistance to states and localities. Of that, nearly $100 million will have been provided by week’s end, and resources will be virtually exhausted by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, the letter says.
The NIH started Phase I clinical trials Wednesday of a DNA-based vaccine, but without more funding, the second phase on that vaccine and others will be delayed. Additional research and development also may be constrained as NIH’s $47 million in repurposed funding runs out by the end of this month.
“A delay in this stage of development will delay when a safe and effective Zika vaccine is available to the American public,” Burwell wrote. “These examples demonstrate the urgent need for the administration’s request for $1.9 billion in emergency supplemental funding.”
Democrats blamed Republicans, and Republicans blamed Democrats and the administration. Although Congress typically finds a way to get beyond its partisanship and act when circumstances absolutely require, it’s not clear what will happen in this case at the height of a frenzied election season, and with the virus still not widespread in this country.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said: “The urgency of enacting emergency Zika funding is growing by the day.” She called on Speaker Paul Ryan to reconvene the House to act on a bipartisan Zika bill that had passed the Senate.
This week, authorities have been spraying insecticides in Miami’s Wynwood arts district, where more than a dozen people have become infected with the first mosquito-transmitted cases in the mainland U.S. The country has been girding for months against the epidemic coursing through Latin America and the Caribbean. On Monday, the CDC instructed pregnant women to avoid the neighborhood, marking what is believed to be the first time in the agency’s 70-year history that it warned people not to travel somewhere in the U.S. The Zika virus can cause severe brain-related defects, including disastrously small heads.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered free Zika testing statewide Wednesday to help pregnant women.
Scott directed state health officials to make the tests available at county health departments and also said the state would provide additional lab services to handle the expected increase to ensure test results are processed quickly.
Scott promised in a statement Wednesday to “aggressively fight against the Zika virus.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes as some doctors have complained they were being forced to ration test kits and turn away pregnant women who were requesting them.
The free tests announced by the governor are only available at county health departments and do not apply to physicians in private practice.
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