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Zika Funding Fight Reignites

Updated White House request seeks to boost vaccine research

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers insists on a breakdown of how the administration would spend Zika funding. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers insists on a breakdown of how the administration would spend Zika funding. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Obama administration has not given a breakdown of how much money it wants to spend to combat the Zika virus in fiscal 2016 and 2017, a major hurdle in constructing an emergency spending measure, the top House lawmaker on spending matters said. At the same time, the administration has prepared an updated Zika request for the Department of Health and Human Services and a copy given to CQ Roll Call by a Democratic source shows that it would boost funding for vaccine research and development.The document compares requests from Feb. 22 and April 18.  

The source said vaccine development has come more quickly than anticipated and the agency wants to test multiple candidates for a vaccine in an effort to increase viable options.  

In Congress, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers  continued his war of words with the administration over the emergency supplemental.  

“For several months now, we’ve been trying to find out what is absolutely needed now, in ’16, in order to find out whether or not the moneys left over from Ebola [are] enough to cover the rest of this fiscal year,” Rogers told CQ Roll Call late on Monday, prior to the disclosure of the administration’s updated request. “But we simply cannot get adequate information from the administration about what moneys they absolutely need today and what they need for ’17, and we simply haven’t gotten it.”  

Rogers was referring to fiscal years 2016, which is more than half over, and fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.  

When asked whether the real problem was that the administration won’t give a breakdown allocating the needed Zika money between the fiscal years, Rogers replied, “That’s a big part of it, yes.”  

Rogers said the information was important to have a clearer picture of what kind of dent the $589 million the administration redirected from the Ebola effort this month could make to combat the Zika virus.  

“My present information leads me to believe that that’s plenty of money for this fiscal year. We have five months left,” Rogers said, referring to the redirected funds. “So, we can’t do much without hard information. We have to have justifications that they simply haven’t given us.”  

The virus is primarily transmitted through mosquitoes and has been linked to birth defects.  

So far, authorities have reported nearly 700 cases in the United States and its territories. About half the total cases — those in Puerto Rico — primarily originated locally, while the remainder in the U.S. were transmitted by travelers.  

U.S. health officials warned earlier this month that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus were present in 30 states.  Those officials do not expect a wide-scale outbreak in the continental U.S., but they warned that Zika could still be a big problem and that they lacked funds to head that off.  

The updated Zika request from the administration redirects previously allotted moneys from an agency-wide contingency fund as well as laboratory construction and expansion projects toward vaccine research and development.  

The National Institutes of Health has indicated it needs funding for both Phase I and Phase II of vaccine development, the source said. Although Phase II testing will not occur until 2017, the preparation necessary for implementation of those trials would require additional funding in fiscal 2016.  

Funding for NIH research, including vaccines, is boosted in the updated request from $130 million to $277 million. Vaccine funding as well as funding for diagnostic development and procurement through the HSS also jumps from $100 million to $188 million.  

House Republicans and the administration have repeatedly butted heads over Zika virus funding in recent weeks.  

On Wednesday, Rogers likened the administration’s original $1.9 billion request sent in February to a “slush fund.”  The House passed a bill on April 12 to creative incentives for drug makers to speed work on Zika treatments but the legislation did not contain the emergency funds requested by the White House. On Friday, Rogers also waved off the request of Democratic appropriators to hold a special meeting on the issue.  

An aide to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan  said Thursday that the request was “merely an outline,” and suggested the administration was more interested in politicizing the issue.  

On the Senate side, Democrats are also pushing for Zika funding but finding scant support among their Republican colleagues.  

On Monday, some 40 Senate Democrats as well as independent senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont signed a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran , R-Miss., to “immediately” begin work to pass a bill funding the administration’s request.  

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