Obama Administration Requests $1.8 Billion To Combat Mosquito-Spread Zika Virus

By  //  February 9, 2016

President Obama seeks $1.8 billion in emergency funds to fight the Zika virus.

White House officials announced Monday that the Obama administration will request a historic $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress to combat the Zika virus, which is primarily spread by mosquitoes.

Over the past two months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found over 50 laboratory-confirmed cases of the virus in Americans who traveled to countries which have demonstrated an epidemic of direct transmission. As of Feb. 8th, 14 cases in seven different Florida counties have been included in those reported to the CDC. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared healthcare emergencies in those counties.

“While we have not yet seen transmission of the Zika virus by mosquitoes within the continental United States, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories in warmer areas with Aedes aegpyti mosquito populations are already seeing active transmission,” the White House warned in a statement.

Part of the requested funds would be used for expanded mosquito control.

According to the White House press release, the money would expand mosquito control programs, speed development of a vaccine, develop diagnostic tests and improve support for low-income pregnant women.

Most people who are infected with the virus manifest mild or no symptoms. However, there are epidemiological concerns that the fetus of infected pregnant women may be at risk for a rare birth defect called microcephaly that causes brain damage and an abnormally small head.

The amount called for is significantly larger than that spent on other virus outbreaks and marks a dramatic turnaround for the Obama administration, which previously proposed cutting funding for the agency leading the charge against the virus.

The proposed funding would be distributed as follows:

  • $828 million for the CDC to support Zika preparedness and response capacity in areas where mosquitoes are known to transmit the virus; to improve mosquito control programs; to build virus surveillance and education efforts; and enhance laboratory capacity to test for the Zika virus
  • $250 million for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to support a temporary 1-year increase in Puerto Rico’s Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage that would aid pregnant women at-risk of infection or diagnosed with the virus (the territory has documented recent and ongoing transmission of the virus)
  • $200 million for vaccine research and diagnostics, which includes funding for the NIH to advance the scientific understanding of the virus; funding for the FDA to support Zika virus medical product development
  • $210 million for other HHS activities including the development of an “Urgent and Emerging Threat Fund” in the event that Zika mosquito population migrates.

The remaining funding would be split between the U.S. Agency for International Development, which would receive $335 million, to help control both the mosquito populations and the transmission of the virus in affected countries, and the U.S. Department of State, which would be granted $41 million to provide medical support for U.S. citizens and state department employees in affected countries.

For comparison, experts estimate that the U.S. has spent between $678 million to $1.01 billion treating West Nile virus since 1999, an estimated $806 million on malaria research and control efforts in 2012, and made at least $1.15 billion available for fighting Ebola, reportedly spending $1.4 billion on its mission in West Africa, including building treatment centers.

There are epidemiological concerns that the fetuses of Zika infected pregnant women may be at risk for a rare birth defect called microcephaly that causes brain damage and an abnormally small head.

In a press briefing, Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director of the CDC in Atlanta, said “We are working 24-7 to understand this virus, to detect it where it is occurring, and to prevent it’s spread.”

While Schuchat said the Zika virus is unlikely to impact the day-to-day life of the average person living in the U.S., expectant mothers are an exception.

“If you are pregnant, we have taken the unusual step of recommending that you avoid travel to areas where Zika is spreading,” she said. Schuchat recommended that those who live in such areas be extremely vigilant in applying mosquito repellent and taking measures to avoid mosquito bites.

zika virus vaccine
Some of the $1.8 billion requested to combat the Zika virus is ear-marked to fast track vaccine development.

At a White House press briefing Monday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Insititute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters they are hopeful for a vaccine.

“We have already started to develop the vaccine in the early stages and we can predict that we likely will be in phase one trial just to determine if it is safe and if it induces a good response, probably by the end of the summer and get that going by the end of this year,” Fauci said.

It’s unclear whether Congress will consent to Obama’s $1.8 billion request now. Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said, “I think you can see that the nation’s public health experts at the CDC and the NIH are working quickly to protect the American public and we hope Congress will do the same.”