The $1.1 billion Congress approved last week for fighting the Zika virus will be used to develop diagnostic tests, put vaccine candidates through clinical trials and to assist state and local health departments with mosquito control.
But the monthslong delay in receiving the funds requested in February and the $800 million discrepancy from what was asked for will have long-term negative consequences for combating Zika and other health threats, officials said Monday.
HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a conference call with reporters that agencies had to borrow money from themselves and each other while Congress debated the funding because the Zika threat was too great to stall.
“The damage that occurred because we took those funds will continue,” she said.
Also, time and energy spent trying to get the funding approved could have been used in determining how best to spend it, Burwell said.
More than 2,300 pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories have been infected with Zika, which can cause severe birth defects in the children of women who were infected with the disease while pregnant.
Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said some manufacturers interested in working on vaccines walked away from collaboration with the federal government because the funding was uncertain.
There are nine Zika vaccine candidates in various stages of development. One has just begun Phase 1 clinical trial testing and is “right on target,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Frieden, said his agency is developing studies to follow children born to Zika-infected mothers and monitor their health for several years.
“The biggest unknown, really, in term of the epidemiology of Zika, is what will become of the infants born to mothers with Zika who don't have an obvious abnormality, such as microcephaly, at birth,” he said.