No longer able to wait for a deadlocked Congress to allocate necessary funds to fight Zika, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell took the matter into her own hands Thursday and announced she will reallocate $81 million within the department so researchers can continue work on a potential vaccine.
In a letter to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Burwell said the fight against Zika, which is frequently spread by mosquitoes, has taken on new urgency in light of the rising number of Zika cases in Florida. As of Thursday, she said there have been more than 7,300 cases of Zika, 972 pregnant women with Zika and 15 babies born with Zika-related birth defects in the United States.
"The failure to pass a Zika emergency supplemental has forced the Administration to choose between delaying critical vaccine development and raiding other worthy government programs to temporarily avoid these delays," Burwell said in the letter.
Burwell intends to move $34 million to the National Institutes of Health and $47 million to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The funding will allow continued research into a vaccine until the end of the fiscal year but isn't enough to pay for planned testing and research into a vaccine.
During a press briefing on Thursday, Anthony Fauci, M.D., pictured left, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is one of the leading research teams developing a vaccine, called Burwell's move a stop-gap measure. He said the reallocation of funds has potential negative consequences, because it takes money away from other research projects.
“All of that is extremely damaging to the biomedical research enterprise,” Fauci said. “We were hoping, continually hoping, that Congress was going to allocate the money for us.”
In her letter, Burwell said that the reallocation is the last internal move the department can make to fund Zika research. With the reallocation, “we have exhausted our ability to provide even short-term financing to help fight Zika,” she wrote.
The $34 million moved to Fauci’s team is what’s needed to begin the second phase of development for NIAID’s Zika vaccine. The second phase will begin in January, Fauci said at the briefing, but in the meantime existing funds will be used to renovate clinics and hire nurses and doctors in order to pilot the vaccine in affected areas.
Despite the funds allocated Thursday, and other moves earlier this year to add funds for Zika, Fauci said he still needs about $196 million to complete planned testing and research on the vaccine between now and the end of next year.
In addition to research on vaccinations, Fauci said teams are looking into better ways to test patients for Zika infection. Part of the problem, he said, is that Zika is closely related to other mosquito-borne viruses like yellow fever, dengue fever and West Nile virus. In areas that are conducive to all of those illnesses, tests may not be able to tell the difference between them--which is especially critical for pregnant women who may have contracted the Zika virus.
In 80 percent of Zika cases, the symptoms are mild and people may not even be aware they were infected. But for pregnant women, the impact of the virus on their babies--including microcephaly--could be devastating, he said. “That is an unusual situation,” he said.