Conference Coverage

HHS calls on Congress to approve supplemental Zika funding



The White House implored Congress on April 6 to act quickly on requests to allocate substantial funding for combating the Zika virus, as the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that it will be tapping into emergency funds allocated for last year’s Ebola outbreak to keep preventive efforts against the Zika virus alive.

“The American people shouldn’t have to be panicked for Congress to do their job,” Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said during a teleconference with reporters. “The administration, this president, we’re doing our job, [now] Congress needs to do their job and get the resources we need to take the steps [to] protect our citizens, communities, and families.

“We submitted to Congress a request for emergency supplemental funding in February to fortify our efforts to combat, and stay ahead of, this disease, but Congress has yet to act,” Mr. Donovan said, adding that in the nearly 2 months since that request was sent, “the situation continues to grow more critical.”

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, revealed that local transmission of the Zika virus in the continental United States is “likely” during the coming spring and summer months, and that efforts to increase the number of Zika virus tests being produced, as well establishing labs capable of running those tests, are continuing in order to meet the expected demand.

Sylvia Burwell Courtesy HHS

Sylvia Burwell

To facilitate that, Secretary Burwell and Mr. Donovan revealed that $589 million in existing funds have been identified as being immediately available to assist with the ongoing preventive efforts against the Zika virus. Of those funds, $510 million were designated to combat the Ebola virus outbreak of late 2014 and into last year.

“Yesterday, the State Department transmitted to Congress a determination under Section 7058C of the Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Act that the international outbreak of the Zika virus is sustained, severe, and spreading internationally, and that it is in the U.S. national interest to respond to this public health emergency,” explained Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary for management and resources in the Department of State, regarding how funds were freed up from the Ebola crisis to combat the ongoing Zika virus outbreak.

While the reallocated funding will provide a measure of financial relief, all three speakers warned that the money was only a temporary fix, and that without proper Congressional support, ongoing Zika virus activities will have to be either “delayed, or curtailed, or stopped within months,” according to Mr. Donovan.

These efforts include the ongoing development of a Zika virus vaccine. Secretary Burwell gave an update on the search for a viable vaccine, stating that “five to six vaccine candidates” are set to begin phase I trials in September. Furthermore, prevention efforts in Puerto Rico have been ramped up with the creation of more field offices to combat the virus closer to the source.

“As of April 1, there were 672 confirmed cases of Zika in the continental U.S. and territories,” said Secretary Burwell. “That count includes 64 women who have [been] confirmed for Zika and are pregnant, which you all know is important because the WHO [World Health Organization] recently confirmed that there is strong scientific evidence that the virus itself is the cause of microcephaly, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and other neurological disorders.” She also mentioned that the HHS has confirmed one case of an infant born with microcephaly in Hawaii, to a mother who tested positive for the Zika virus during pregnancy.

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