//UPDATE 6:30 P.M: Word this evening is that President Obama has said that if it is passed in its current form by the Senate, he will veto the bill . . . Stay turned//
A Zika funding agreement signed off on by House and Senate Republicans early this morning would allocate $1.1 billion — the same amount allotted in a Senate bill passed last month — to efforts to control the mosquito-borne virus and its impacts, which include severe and disabling birth defects. But with the resemblance between the two proposals ending there, only a relatively small addition of new funding, and additional constraints on responses, its outcome remains an open question.
The agreement provides $476 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for mosquito control, $230 million to the U.S. National Institutes of Health for vaccine research and development, $165 million to the State Department and USAID to respond to outbreaks of the virus internationally, and $86 million in additional emergency response research funding through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. All but the $250 million of the funding agreed to today would be moved from existing accounts.
The agreement is the latest response to President Obama’s February request for $1.9 billion in new funding to respond to the spread of the virus internationally and domestically. In the interim, the White House moved funding from other health budgets, including for Ebola responses, saying that money was urgently needed but should be replaced. By the time the Senate responded with a $1.1 billion Zika spending package in May, the link between Zika infection during pregnancy and babies born with stunted heads and brains had been confirmed, and the virus was being spread by mosquitoes in 60 countries and territories, with 10 reporting rising rates of microcephaly, and 13 reporting rising rates of Guillain Barre syndrome, a paralyzing illness. More than 500 cases of the virus had been reported in the United States, with more than 150 of those among pregnant women. The Senate bill supplied new funding to meet the increasing needs to respond to the virus and its effects, but did not replace the funding moved by the White House, even as small outbreaks of Ebola continued in West Africa, along with other continuing impacts of that epidemic. The U.S. House of Representatives responded later that month to the President’s request with a bill allotting $622 million entirely from existing funds, which the Obama Administration promised to veto.
The new agreement splits the difference, with $750 million coming from yet unspent Ebola and Affordable Care Act funds, and $100 million already allocated to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Like the Senate bill it does not replace reallocated Ebola money; unlike the Senate bill, it subtracts additional money from funding for responses to that crisis. The earlier House bill authorized spending only through September 2016, this one authorizes spending through September 2017.
As the agreement was passed by the full House of Representatives early this morning, the virus had spread to 61 countries and territories, and the CDC had reported Zika associated neurological defects in three live infants and three miscarried or stillborn infants born to Zika-infected mothers in the United States.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky) chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who chaired the conference committee today called the agreement “solid” and, noting that mosquito season in the U.S. has now arrived, said “these dollars must get out the door now, to help control the spread of Zika virus . . .”
But the agreement, which was signed by both House and Senate Republicans had not been signed by a single Democrat. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa), a committee member who left the agreement unsigned, called the agreement “deeply disappointing,” adding, “in fact it’s appalling — that after months of dragging their feet, Republicans now plan to introduce a hyperpartisan proposal that is more about throwing red meat to the Tea Party than actually tackling this crisis.”
Sen. Harry Reid, who called the agreement “a disgrace,” noted on the Senate floor today that the bill provides $800 million less than the President’s request, adding, “Remember the president’s request was more than four months ago, and we’ve learned since then how awful this spread of this virus is. We knew quite a bit four months ago, but we know more now.”
The fate of the agreement rests with the Senate, which recesses at the end of next week.
An immediate White House response to the agreement expressed dissatisfaction, saying the plan comes “four months late and nearly a billion dollars short of what our public health experts have said is necessary to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus and steals funding from other health priorities.”
Stay tuned . . . Science Speaks is following avidly