There were promising reports from U.S. Army and Brazilian researchers last week on the development of a vaccine to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
The way things are going in Congress, fighting Zika just might require a scientific breakthrough.
Apparently, partisan games are more important to this Congress than providing funds desperately needed to fight the Zika virus, which is a serious public health threat in South America and soon could become so in the United States.
Democrats in the Senate were able to derail a $1.1 billion proposal for the Zika effort last Tuesday over what was essentially a partisan quibble. Earlier, the House rejected the Obama administration’s request for $1.9 billion because the GOP majority insisted that agencies already had enough funds in reserve to cover part of the costs.
President Barack Obama has complicated the issue by threatening to veto anything less than he asked for, a move that would effectively gut the effort to combat Zika.
Now time is running out. The two sides have put themselves into untenable positions that could make it almost impossible to pass Zika funding this summer. They should climb down from their partisan perches and take action, before heading off to the national political conventions and summer break in less than two weeks
On June 29, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told reporters that he had run out of funds to continue research into a Zika vaccine. He warned, “I don’t have money to move from any other place.”
On July 1, the Centers for Disease Control doled out to states the last funds — $25 million — it has available to fight Zika. South Carolina received the munificent sum of $343,552.
That is a pitiful and wholly unacceptable amount of public funding for what is one of the most serious, and certainly the most emotionally charged, public health menace to come along in a long time. Zika can have devastating effects on human embryos and can be spread by sexual contact.
According to Reuters, as of June 23 there have been seven babies born in the U.S. with microcephaly or other Zika-related birth defects such as brain abnormalities, and five lost pregnancies from miscarriage, stillbirth or termination.
Authorities are urging people in areas at risk of the spread of the virus, like Puerto Rico, to use contraceptives and avoid pregnancies.
Senate Democrats, in rejecting the House bill to appropriate $1.1 billion for Zika programs this year and next, said it unacceptably denied funding to Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico. The implication was that poor Puerto Rican women would not be able to otherwise obtain contraceptives to prevent having a Zika-infected embryo.
“The House Zika bill is a disaster,” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Fla., contended. “Not only does it take $500 million in health care funding away from Puerto Rico, it limits access to birth control services needed to help curb the spread of the virus and prevent terrible birth defects. This is not a serious solution.”
The reality of the House bill tells a different story, however. PolitiFact, a Tampa Bay Times enterprise that can’t be credibly accused of conservative bias, fairly reviewed the House bill. Its analysis concluded that the legislation “provided funds that would potentially help clinics and hospitals in nearly every municipality on the island.”
President Obama on Friday called on Congress to pass Zika funding before the summer break “as part of their basic responsibility.”
He did not repeat a threat to veto the bill, saying, “The good news is we feel fairly confident that we can develop an effective vaccine for Zika” if given adequate funding.
And at this late date in mosquito season, the House bill is the surest way to get that urgently needed money to the National Institutes of Health, the CDC and state public health organizations.
The funding bill already has been irresponsibly delayed on Capitol Hill.
For the sake of public health, the Senate must take action.