Bugs, Not Drugs: Repercussions of Zika Funding Delays


A few days ago Dr. Tony Fauci of the NIH told me he’s “relieved” Congress provided funds to respond to the Zika virus so that federally funded scientists didn’t have to halt their work on developing a vaccine.

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared Zika to be a public health emergency, the White House requested $1.9 billion in February for emergency funding. After about seven months of finger pointing over which party was actually blocking the funding, Congress provided $1.1 billion on Sept. 29—one day before the fiscal year ended.

Fauci told me back in July that he couldn’t recall another situation in which Congress took this long to agree on funding a response to a public health emergency. And this is a guy whose appointment in 1984 as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the National Institutes of Health is about the same age as your average millennial. So he’s overseen the agency’s response for Ebola, pandemic influenza, not to mention the AIDS epidemic.

And he and his colleagues within the Department of Health and Human Services have made their disappointment clear. HHS organized several press conferences this summer with groups like the March of Dimes and the obstetrician’s association to call on Congress to support the emergency request. Fauci said he can continue with vaccine work—“the most important” part of the NIH’s response—but his institute can’t pay back any of the $34.2 million it took from other institutes and centers to keep Zika work going.

Nicole Lurie, who heads up the medical countermeasures office said during a press conference Oct. 3, “We had manufacturers walk away from negotiations with us because they weren’t sure the money was going to be there.” (Of course we reporters wanted to know who, but that is procurement-sensitive intel). Plus while there are nine vaccine candidates in the pipeline, Lurie said “we are behind where we should be” on vaccine development as “manufacturers really couldn’t count on funds being there.”

But now that they have the money, HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said more vaccine candidates and tests to screen for the Zika virus are on the way.

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