According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 14 documented locally acquired and 2,245 travel-associated Zika cases in the continental United States. In U.S. territories, there have been more than 8,000 cases. While most of the locally acquired cases in the United States have occurred in southeast Florida, recent data suggest the virus is spreading along the Gulf Coast to states including Louisiana and Texas. Despite the growing number of cases, and the spread of infection, Congress has failed to fund vital Zika research.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration reallocated $81 million from the Department of Health and Human Services ($47 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and $34 million from the National Institutes of Health) to combat the virus.
Since February, the administration, with support from U.S. House Democrats, has been seeking $1.9 billion in emergency funds:
- $1.48 billion for HHS
- $828 million of which for the CDC to pay for surveillance and rapid-response programs
- $250 million for aid Puerto Rico
- $200 million for the NIH for vaccine development
- $335 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development to support other affected countries
- $41 million to the U.S. Department of State for support of U.S. citizens in affected countries
In May, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a $1.1 billion measure for emergency funding, however, House Republicans refused to accept the provisions, adding legislation to reallocate funds from Ebola research and Obamacare as well as removing funding from Planned Parenthood-controlled health centers to fund the bill. House Democrats, rejecting these “poison pill” provisions, voted against the package, putting Zika funding in congressional limbo.
This lack of funds is risking a delay in vaccine development while threatening the reallocating of more money from other NIH programs to fund the research. Even with the crippling budget constraints (conservative estimates place the total cost of vaccine development at $160 million to $500 million) the NIH and other organizations continue their efforts on vaccine development. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has said, “A safe and effective vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection and the devastating birth defects it causes is a public health imperative.”
Earlier this month, researchers at the NIAID published a report in Science regarding the efficacy of immunizing nonhuman primates from the Zika virus. In all cases, these vaccines protected against viral infection while producing an immune response to the virus without causing any adverse effects. With the nonhuman primate success, the NIH has begun recruiting human participants for its first clinical Zika virus vaccine trial, which could take place as early as next spring.
Despite advancements, continued lack of funds coupled with the time it takes to develop and test a vaccine mean vaccine availability for wide-spread patient administration could take up to five years. Therefore, investments into controlling mosquitos (insecticides) and reducing human contraction (repellents) remains at the forefront.
To better understand the disease trajectory, the National Science Foundation has invested in broad spectrum basic research, developing and analyzing mathematical epidemic models to reduce community response time to such an outbreak. Using these models, the NSF will be able to learn about transmission rates while developing methods to control spread at an expedited rate.
Despite these innovations, funding for continued research remains the major hurdle in controlling and eradicating the disease. Recently, representatives from both sides of the aisle have been outspoken about the need for Congress to approve the emergency funds for continued research, while also advocating for setting up a “public health emergency fund” to ensure preparedness in the case of future health pandemics.
However, NIH officials estimate they will run out of money by the end of September, thus further delaying the vaccine development process.
As Congress will not return to work until after Labor Day, many expect funding delays to occur. While Congress argues over appropriations of funds for Zika research, the virus is spreading along the Gulf Coast with multiple new cases being diagnosed daily. Only with sustained investment in Zika research can this virus be eradicated.