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White House Seeks Emergency Funds to Fight Zika

The White House initiative would support research and diagnostics. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

The Obama administration will ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus -- a disease the president says is a cause for concern but not panic.  

The White House announced the request to cover research and planning in the United States and abroad minutes after CBS aired an interview with President Barack Obama during which he said “there shouldn't be panic on this -- this is not something where people are going to die from.”  

Still, the president made clear “it is something we have to take seriously.”  

"The good news is this is not like Ebola, people don't die of Zika,” Obama said during an interview Monday on “CBS This Morning.”  

“A lot of people get it and don't even know that they have it,” he noted. “There appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women who are thinking about getting pregnant.  

"We don't know exactly what the relations there are, but there is enough correlation that we have to take this very seriously," Obama said. "And so we are going to be putting up a legislative proposal to Congress to resource both the research on vaccines and diagnostics but also helping in terms of public health systems."  

In a fact sheet released shortly after the interview, the White House said it has been “aggressively working” for several months “to combat Zika.” The virus, typically transmitted through mosquitoes but also known to be sexually transmitted, has been linked to birth defects and other ailments.  

If approved by lawmakers, the funding would be used “to enhance our ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the Zika virus, both domestically and internationally,” according to the White House.  

The funds would be used to build on ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the virus, including “rapidly expanding mosquito control programs; accelerating vaccine research and diagnostic development; [and] enabling the testing and procurement of vaccines and diagnostics,” according to the White House.  

The White House also is planning to step up work on fighting the virus’ impact on unborn babies. It says it needs some of the $1.8 billion to accelerate efforts on “educating health care providers, pregnant women and their partners; improving epidemiology and expanding laboratory and diagnostic testing capacity; improving health services and supports for low-income pregnant women, and enhancing the ability of Zika-affected countries to better combat mosquitoes and control transmission.”  

The lion’s share of the request, $1.5 billion, would be channeled to the Department of Health and Human Services. Its share would include $828 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for work on “mosquito control programs,” enhanced work at laboratories, creation of rapid-response teams and other efforts.  

Another $250 million would go to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to enhance health care services for at-risk or infected pregnant women in Puerto Rico, as well as children there who have microcephaly, a condition that results in abnormally small heads when pregnant women are infected.  

Various other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, would receive the rest of the money for such things as increased “research, rapid advanced development and commercialization of new vaccines and diagnostic tests” and to help other countries deal with the virus and halt its spread, the fact sheet said.  

The administration did not disclose exactly when the emergency funding request would be sent to Capitol Hill, saying only that it would be submitted “shortly.”  

The CDC says, so far, it has no evidence of “locally transmitted Zika cases ... in the continental United States.” However, the center notes in its own fact sheet that “cases have been reported in returning travelers.” To date, the center has reported 50 confirmed cases of American travelers who have the virus.  

The virus has been actively transmitted in a list of South and Central American countries, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, according to the CDC.  

U.S. officials are rushing to secure the funds necessary to ramp up their anti-Zika work before the spring and summer months bring mosquitoes out in droves in the continental United States, especially in the South.  

“As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the southern United States,” the White House said.  

The administration on Monday bluntly acknowledged “there is much that we do not yet know about Zika and its relationship to the poor health outcomes that are being reported in Zika-affected areas.”  

We must work aggressively to investigate these outbreaks, and mitigate, to the best extent possible, the spread of the virus,” the White House said.  

That’s why the administration wants lawmakers to act quickly, arguing prompt allocation of the $1.8 billion would “accelerate our ability to prevent, detect and respond to the Zika virus and bolster our ability to reduce the potential for future infectious disease outbreaks,” according to the release.  

The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s global health subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday with witnesses invited from the CDC, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the U.S. Agency for International Development.  

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters it is important that Congress and the White House move quickly to combat the virus, saying Washington moved too slowly during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.  

McConnell’s call for action came after he discussed the matter, and others, with Obama and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., during an Oval Office meeting.  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

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