HHS Can’t Wait for Congress; Shifts $81 Million from NIH for Zika Fight

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has shifted $81 million in funds from other projects to continue work on developing vaccines to fight the Zika virus in the absence of any funding from U.S. lawmakers, Reuters reported Thursday.

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In a letter addressed to Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said she was allocating $34 million in funding to the National Institutes of Health and $47 million to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to work on Zika vaccines.

Burwell said the funding was intended to keep Zika vaccine research ongoing despite the lack of funding from U.S. lawmakers, who left for summer recess before allocating any funding to Zika research and preparedness.

On Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said state health officials have identified three additional people in the affected area with locally transmitted Zika, bringing the total to 25. The Obama administration in February requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika, but congressional lawmakers have been considering a much smaller sum.

A bill providing $1.1 billion was blocked by Democrats after Republicans attached language to stop Planned Parenthood from using that government funding for healthcare services, mainly in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico.

The Republican legislation also would appropriate unused money under President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 healthcare law to combat Zika. In addition, Democrats shrugged off a Republican provision that they said would gut clean water protections.

The new injection of funds from HHS comes on top of the $589 million in repurposed funds previously allocated for Ebola efforts. HHS has said these funds will run out at the end of August.

At a press briefing in Washington, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he needs $33 million to prepare to move the first potential Zika vaccine to the second phase of human clinical trials.

The first phase of that testing is expected to end in late November or December. Fauci said Ms. Burwell has the authority to transfer 1% of NIH’s $33 billion budget per year from one Institute to the other. He said the director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, will decide which existing programs the funds will be drawn from. “He will probably do it on a prorated basis across the Institutes,” he said.

Fauci said the budget transfer will not fill the longer-term NIH funding needs to fight the virus and to develop a second or third potential vaccine candidate. Drugs frequently fail to realize the promise they show in early trials.

“We still need about $196 million more,” he said. Fauci said the health secretary’s action was essentially one of desperation given the failure of Congress to authorize additional funding. Taking money from other research programs “is extremely damaging to the biomedical research enterprise,” he said. “We’re taking money away from cancer, diabetes, all those things.”

Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said at the briefing that local health authorities are similarly draining off money from other programs. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

In her letter, Burwell said the $47 million in funding for BARDA will allow the agency to enter into contracts with key partners to develop vaccines. But she said BARDA will need an estimated $342 million in additional funding to continue its work with outside partners in the development of vaccines, diagnostics and pathogen inactivation technology used to protect the U.S. blood supply.

Steve’s Take: It was bound to happen. While our congressional representatives are still absent from sizzling Washington on their 7-week summer junket–without first managing to put aside their partisan scrums over much-needed funding to fight Zika and protect us and our progeny–the virus claimed its first known life in the United States when a baby who tested positive for the virus and developed birth defects died in Texas, health officials said last week.

Fortune magazine said the baby was born in a Houston-area Harris County hospital several weeks ago and exhibited birth defects including microcephaly, or an abnormally small head that are associated with the virus. The child’s mother is believed to have contracted Zika while traveling abroad in El Salvador and wasn’t aware she had it.

As of August 3, there were 1,818 travel-reported cases of Zika virus in U.S. states. But the number of infections transmitted from local mosquitoes in Florida has also been growing–and the spread is expected to get worse in the coming months, Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Without a vaccine, pregnant women who contract Zika either from mosquitoes or sex with an infected partner have somewhere between a 1 in 100 and 1 in 13 chance of giving birth to a baby with developmental problems. “The case highlights that Zika is not just producing babies with small heads. We should expect many similar deaths, and also stillbirths,” said Hotez of the Houston baby’s death in an interview with USA Today.

“Zika’s impact on unborn babies can be tragic, and our hearts are with this family,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas Department of State Health Services commissioner, in a statement. “Our central mission from the beginning has been to do everything we can to protect unborn babies from the devastating effects of Zika.”

Texas officials emphasized that they would continue to pursue prevention efforts such as keeping the population of mosquitoes that carry Zika at bay. Experts recommend that people protect themselves from infection by wearing long sleeves, practicing safe sex, and using insect repellent with DEET, among other measures.

So while Congress bides its time posturing for the upcoming November elections in order to get re-elected and thereby perpetuate their collective ineptitude in serving us in dire situations like this, my kudos go out to our state and local representatives and officials who, unlike the federal bunch, actually take action.

And hats off to the federal health agencies and HHS Director Burwell, NIH Director Dr. Collins, their ally, Dr. Fauci, and others who are scratching around for every available dollar in their research coffers to get the ball rolling for an effective Zika vaccine. What a disgrace that so many professional politicians can’t see past their own plush Washington offices to take similar, crucial action and help protect us.

It’s been far too long for all the relentless partisanship and posturing without enactment of the necessary measure for effective funding of the Zika fight. We now, today, have our first recorded infant fatality from Zika. Had its mother been vaccinated, this most likely wouldn’t have occurred. Tragically, there are more such instances bound to come.

Hello out there, Congress…You reading this, or any other newspaper? We need your help. Answering your phones or mail? Oh, apparently not until you get back to work next month. Well, thanks for nothing.