The news is constantly changing about the Zika virus. Federal funding and prevention efforts have been a huge part of the discussion this week. And, with Florida leading the nation with close to 90 cases of the mosquito-borne disease, the state’s congressional leaders say it’s even more crucial that something is done.
About two months ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress to set aside $1.9 billion to help combat the Zika virus. 600 million of unspent Ebola funds will also be used to fight Zika, which he calls a temporary solution. And, recently, top Congressional Republicans say they’re willing to provide more once it’s determined what is specifically needed.
But, Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s Deputy Director, says most of what they’ve learned so far is not reassuring.
“We have learned that the virus is linked to a broader set of complications in pregnancy, not just microcephaly, but also prematurity, but also eye problems and other conditions,” she said, at a recent press conference.
And, she says the key is to be ready.
“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought and so, while we absolutely hope, we don’t see widespread local transmission in the continental U.S., we need the states to be ready for that,” she added.
Through research, U.S. health officials say there’s no longer any doubt the Zika virus causes severe birth defects. Despite a surge of Brazilian babies born with a rare birth defect during an outbreak there, experts had been waiting on more definitive results.
Florida State University researchers had partnered with John Hopkins University to identify such a link. FSU Biology professor Hengli Tang led the team.
“It’s very exciting, very exciting,” he said, featured in an FSU video. “It’s one of those things that makes you want to get to the lab as early as we can. I have students who didn’t sleep, trying to go through these things. It’s really exciting because you are literally the first people in the world to know this.”
And, FSU was recently recognized for its efforts by North Florida Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Graham on the House floor. She also urged Congress to fully fund similar research and prevention efforts.
“I rise to recognize Florida State University for the important research they’re conducting into the deadly Zika virus,” she said, at the time. “As you know, Zika has wreaked havoc across South America and it poses a great threat to my country, especially to my home state of Florida. And, as Summer approaches, the situation will likely worsen. We can’t wait any longer.”
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio agrees, especially he says with the Summer Olympics right around the corner.
“We have a lot of travelers,”. We are literally and figuratively the gateway to Latin America and to many of these countries. As we prepare for the Olympics, for example, this Summer, the number of people coming in and out of our airports and seaports is going to incrementally increase. And, as you’ve seen, most of the Zika cases have been those that we have here in Florida have been those that have transmitted elsewhere and have been imported into the United States. And, so, we want to ensure that the Government is doing what it needs to do.”
There’s already close to 90 Zika cases in Florida—which leads the nation in the number of cases. Miami-Dade leads the 16 counties currently reporting Zika cases with 36.
And, Rubio, who’s from that area, says he agrees with Obama’s $1.9 billion request, but he wants to ensure that money is only used to combat the mosquito-borne disease.
“As we’ve seen often times in the past, like when after Hurricane Sandy, you all of a sudden find that areas around the country that had nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy were receiving part of that money because they had a politically powerful Senator or Congressman that were able to get their hands on some of that money,” he added. “If we’re going to spend $1.9 billion addressing the issue of Zika, it should be spent on addressing the issue of Zika.”
He also stressed the importance of people taking their own steps to combat the Zika virus, like using mosquito repellent. And, Florida’s Democratic Senator Bill Nelson has made similar remarks.
“If you are pregnant, don’t go anywhere exposing the skin to a mosquito bite particularly in those regions with that variety of mosquito that carries the Zika virus,” said Nelson, on the Senate floor.
He also had a hand in legislation that’s now on its way to President Obama.
“And, what that bill does is give a financial incentive to the drug companies by adding Zika as a virus to the list of tropical diseases where the drug companies have a financial incentive to go on and to find a cure or a vaccine,” he added.
But, while a White House spokesman called the bill a positive step, Josh Earnest says the focus should really be on Obama’s funding request.
“In some ways it’s akin to passing out umbrellas in the advance of a potential hurricane, so an umbrella might come in handy, but it’s going to be insufficient to ensure that communities all across the country are protected from a potentially significant impact,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on. The bill that Congress passed doesn’t include any funding.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Health officials say they’re continuing their research into vaccines. They’re expecting to have their first candidate for the Phase I trial in September.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.