An Aedes aegypti mosquito

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U.S. officials welcome new Zika funding, but say delays hurt

Top officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., spelled out in a teleconference today how a shortage of funding to combat the Zika virus forced them to poach money that otherwise would have gone to addressing cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola, substance abuse, mental health, and the needs of children and families.

These officials, including HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, made clear that they breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama on 29 September signed a temporary spending measure that includes $1.1 billion to combat the spread of the virus in the United States and abroad. But Burwell noted that total is $800 million less than the $1.9 billion the White House requested this past February, with hopes that Congress would provide the funds by midsummer. The request became bogged down in disputes over how the so-called emergency spending would be paid for, and controversial provisions involving family planning and other issues. As a result, Congress didn’t finalize the Zika funding until last week, attaching it to a bill that temporarily extends current funding levels into the 2017 fiscal year that began 1 October. As a result of the delays, federal officials say they redirected some $600 million from existing programs into Zika response efforts.

Burwell and her team explained that the $1.1 billion includes $394 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), $245 million for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and $152 million for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). In response to a question from ScienceInsider, they could not immediately explain how the other $309 million will be allocated, or what’s not being funded that was in the original $1.9 billion request.

About half the new funds will go to development of nine different Zika vaccines supported by BARDA and NIH. A substantial portion of the money also will go to improving diagnostics. According to Nicole Lurie, who oversees BARDA in Washington, D.C., both the vaccine and diagnostic efforts have been hampered by the lack of funding. “We had [vaccine] manufacturers walk away from negotiations with us because they weren’t sure that the money was going to be there,” Lurie said.

CDC will use $44 million of the money it receives to replenish funds taken from its Emergency Preparedness and Response program. CDC Director Tom Frieden in Atlanta said the new money will allow his staff to continue helping states implement mosquito control and infection detection programs, as well as conduct more intensive studies about the impact Zika virus has on pregnancy and on infants born with Zika congenital syndrome, which includes microcephaly. “Because we’ve had to wait these 7 months we haven’t been able to get a running start to some of the critically important studies to understand more fully the impact of Zika,” Frieden said.

Anthony Fauci, head of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, said his institute had to borrow money to prepare sites for vaccine studies, but noted that the first human trials of one vaccine began in August, despite the funding shortfall. If that phase I trial in 80 people proves that vaccine is safe and can stimulate relevant immune responses in people, Fauci said larger phase II trials in locales where Zika is spreading rapidly are slated to begin in January 2017.

Fauci stressed that he and other HHS officials would like to have a permanent fund in place to respond to emergency health issues, such as the sudden emergence of Zika in South America last year, rather than have to wait for Congress and the White House to work out funding details. “At least from our standpoint, it’s something that at least should be seriously considered so we won’t have to wait for the tried and true, but sometimes delayed, appropriations process,” he said.