The nation's top health officials told lawmakers on Wednesday that efforts to combat the spread of Zika would be severely hindered if they reject President Barack Obama's request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding. They also said any diversion of Ebola funds would set back work in West Africa.
Speaking before members of a House oversight subcommittee, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the Ebola epidemic was not over in the countries most affected by the two-year outbreak. A total of more than 28,000 cases have been reported in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone since the beginning of the epidemic, according the World Health Organization, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths.
Frieden said the CDC currently has 84 staffers in West Africa. He said labs there last month tested as many as 10,000 samples for signs of the Ebola.
In 2014, Congress approved more than $5 billion in emergency funding as part of a five-year plan to combat Ebola and improve preparedness for future infectious disease threats. He said resources have already been diverted from other diseases to address the Zika outbreak.
“We're already drastically scaling back the work we're doing on other diseases,” Frieden told committee members. “Without the supplemental funding, we won't be able to most effectively reduce the threat against pregnant women by learning more and doing more to protect them.”
Zika has been linked to a rise in reported cases of microcephaly, a neurological condition that's linked to babies being born with abnormally small heads. More than 4,600 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since the start of the Zika outbreak there last year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told lawmakers the vast majority of the $238 million meant to fund an Ebola vaccine has been spent toward those efforts. He said the estimated $9 million that remains will be used to continue testing the vaccine, which is in the late-stage trial phase.
“Quite frankly, we don't have any Ebola money to switch over,” Fauci said.
Fauci said the government is partnering with pharmaceutical firms to develop and produce a Zika vaccine. He expected a candidate to enter the first phase of clinical trials this fall. He said a lack of funding toward Zika could result in those efforts being delayed.
He said drug companies would likely pull out of efforts to produce a vaccine if there were no assurances that funding was available to finance the effort. “If it turns out we don't get the supplement, we will be viewed (by the drug companies) as an unreliable partner,” Fauci said.
Last week, the CDC reported it has tested 257 pregnant women for Zika since August, with a total of nine testing positive.
The agency announced that as many as 14 cases of infection could have happened through sexual contact. So far, two cases have been confirmed.
The CDC has flagged more than 30 destinations as areas dangerous for pregnant women or women looking to become pregnant.