Zika Research Gets $81 Million Despite Congressional Impasse

FeaturesDow Jones Newswires

The Obama administration Thursday said it will transfer a total of $81 million within the Department of Health and Human Services to keep Zika vaccine research going in light of an impasse in Congress over a funding package to tackle the spread of the virus.

In a Thursday letter to House and Senate leaders, HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said she is transferring $34 million within the National Institutes of Health for Zika virus vaccine research, as well as shifting another $47 million to a biomedical-preparedness agency within HHS for studies related to Zika. She said the money being transferred within NIH will allow the agency to begin setting up the second phase of a vaccine study that is under way.

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Secretary Burwell, in her letter, said the administration now has to "choose between delaying critical vaccine development work and raiding other worthy government programs to temporarily avoid" delays in vaccine research on Zika. She estimated that, even with the $34 million, NIH will need another $196 million in fiscal 2017 for vaccine and other research related to Zika.

Anthony S. Fauci, who heads the NIH's overall response to Zika, said that short-term transfers of funds within NIH and HHS, such as those announced Thursday, aren't a permanent solution at all. Transferring the money will mean taking money from cancer research and other causes, he said.

"All of that is extremely damaging to the biomedical research enterprise," Dr. Fauci said in a briefing at the National Press Club. But the money is immediately needed, he said, for research into possible vaccines to prevent Zika.

The virus, which has been spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean, is causing widespread concern because it can harm unborn children if pregnant women are infected. In infected areas, Zika primarily has been spreading to humans through mosquitoes, though it can be transmitted through sexual intercourse.

The number of pregnant women infected with Zika in U.S. states and the District of Columbia has risen to 510 as of Aug. 4, up from 479 reported last week, according to figures posted Thursday evening by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overall number of Zika cases in the states and the District of Columbia rose to 1,962 as of Aug. 10, up from 1,825 last week.

So far, most of the Zika cases in the U.S. have been travel-related, with people becoming infected with the virus after visiting a Zika-infected area. But on July 29, Florida health officials confirmed the continental U.S.'s first known outbreak of Zika virus transmitted by mosquitoes. The total number of people infected in that outbreak in a section of Miami's Wynwood neighborhood is now 25, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said Thursday.

Health officials learned of local transmissions of the disease in Miami when a pregnant woman tested positive for the virus, according to an internal report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Her connection to Wynwood isn't clear.

Florida officials, with the help of the CDC, have set up a 1-mile zone around the area of likely transmission. They are testing for the virus, removing standing water where mosquitoes thrive and spraying insecticides. The state is offering free Zika testing for all pregnant women in Florida.

The Obama administration originally asked for $1.8 billion from Congress for the national response to Zika. Senate Democrats blocked an alternative Republican-backed bill that included $1.1 billion for Zika. They said the GOP version would unreasonably exclude women's health providers such as Planned Parenthood Federation of America from getting money for Zika treatment.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) who is running for re-election, said Thursday the action was "long overdue," and urged the administration to find more unspent funds that can be redirected toward fighting Zika.

The $47 million in new funds will in part allow vaccine research under the auspices of another part of HHS, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA. That agency has estimated that, even after the $47 million is spent it will need $342 million more in fiscal 2017 for research into vaccines, diagnostic tests and other aspects of dealing with Zika.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) in a statement following the Burwell letter, said, "Republicans' incomprehensible inaction on Zika is forcing HHS to raid critical health initiatives just to stave off a needless and dangerous delay of Zika vaccine development."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), in a statement Thursday, said he is "pleased that the Obama administration is finally activating funds it has to combat Zika. But it's a shame that it's come after months of shameless political posturing."

Write to Thomas M. Burton at tom.burton@wsj.com and Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com