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White House Shifts Ebola Funds to Address Zika Amid Congressional Stalemate

Christine Grimaldi

A White House spokesperson acknowledged that some funding could be redirected from Ebola funding to address the spread of Zika. “But those funds, those resources would not be sufficient to take on what we believe is a pretty serious threat from the Zika virus,” he said.

The Obama administration will use $589 million, the bulk from funding to halt spread of the Ebola virus, for “immediate, time-critical activities” to combat the Zika virus, White House officials said Wednesday.

Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson, told reporters that the funding plan was a “temporary fix.”

The announcement comes as the administration’s $1.9 billion emergency supplemental appropriations request remains a non-starter in the GOP-controlled Congress. Meanwhile, 312 cases of Zika have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Twenty-seven of those cases were reported by pregnant people. 

The World Health Organization has labeled the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus a public health emergency. The virus appears to pose significant consequences for developing fetuses. In Brazil, Zika is linked to a spike in cases of microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero. There were 150 reported cases of microcephaly in 2014 and nearly 4,000 reported cases since October 2015.

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Although the administration balked at using leftover funds tabbed to address Ebola, the new plan will direct $510 million within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of State/USAID to “mosquito control, lab capacity, development of diagnostics and vaccines, supporting affected expectant mothers and babies, tracking and mapping the spread and effects of Zika infections in humans, and other prevention and response efforts in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, other U.S. Territories, and abroad, especially within the Americas,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan wrote.

The Obama administration announced in February plans to request emergency funding, reserving $828 million for the CDC, to explore Zika prevention and response strategies. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) rebuffed the request, pointing the administration to unobligated funding for Ebola, which he said totaled more than $1.4 billion within HHS and $1.3 billion within the U.S. Department of State and USAID.

Earnest had dismissed using leftover Ebola funding for Zika, citing ongoing work to bolster public health infrastructure overseas. “It’s critically important that we follow through on those efforts, and it would be profoundly unwise to take money away from the ongoing effort that’s needed to fight Ebola,” he said.

The White House maintained that position in Wednesday’s announcement.

“The redirected funds are not enough to support a comprehensive Zika response and can only temporarily address what is needed until Congress acts on the Administration’s emergency supplemental request,” Donovan wrote. “Emergency supplemental funding continues to be urgently needed to support the full range of activities needed to prevent, detect, and respond to further transmission of the Zika virus.”

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