More funds needed for US Zika battle

Obama's $2b request blocked by Congress, forcing officials to tap Ebola fund

WASHINGTON • Two senior Obama administration officials have warned that the government did not have enough money to effectively combat and treat the Zika virus, which they called a more profound threat to the United States than experts once believed.

The mosquito-borne virus has been spreading widely in the Americas since late last year and has begun to touch the United States through travellers returning from affected areas. As public health officials discover alarming new aspects of the virus, they are intensifying pressure on Congress for more resources.

President Barack Obama in February requested an emergency appropriation of US$1.8 billion (S$2.4 billion) to deal with Zika, but the Republican-led Congress said the administration should first use money set aside to combat Ebola.

After arguing for months that that was not possible, officials said last week that they would use US$510 million of that money, plus US$79 million from other accounts.

"I don't have what I need right now" to address the virus, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters at the White House on Monday.

"If we don't get the money that the President has asked for, we are not going to be able to take it to the point where we have actually accomplished what we need to do."

FUNDS SORELY NEEDED

If we don't get the money that the President has asked for, we are not going to be able to take it to the point where we have actually accomplished what we need to do.

DR ANTHONY FAUCI, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Dr Fauci and Dr Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), argued that the stopgap funding measure was not enough.

If Congress does not provide the needed funds, Dr Fauci said, the public health authorities will probably have to divert money from malaria and tuberculosis prevention programmes, as well as from flu vaccine programmes.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the Zika virus is present in 30 states, more than twice what officials originally thought, Dr Schuchat said, though no locally acquired cases have been reported yet. That indicates that mosquitoes in the states do not yet have the virus. But in Puerto Rico, nearly every confirmed case has been contracted locally, meaning the virus is present in mosquitoes there and transmitting rapidly.

The virus, which has been linked to birth defects and brain damage in infants born to infected mothers, and to paralysis in some instances in adults, is dangerous not only during the first trimester of a pregnancy, but potentially through- out, Dr Schuchat added.

As of last week, there were 700 cases of Zika disease in the US, including its territories - about half of them in Puerto Rico, according to the CDC. Pregnant women made up 69 of the cases.

Dr Fauci said it appears that the first Zika vaccine candidate is on target to enter clinical trials in September.

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'More funds needed for US Zika battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe