Government scientists have identified the most promising Zika vaccine and have started human trials, but a congressional impasse is forcing them to borrow millions of dollars intended for critical work on cancer, diabetes, Ebola and other deadly diseases.
In a speech attended by other top Zika experts Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tread a thin line between describing progress in the Zika fight and pleading for emergency funding held up for months in Congress.
“We are right now in a race against time to get the best vaccine,” Fauci said.
Scientists at the Vaccine Research Center of Fauci’s institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, are enrolling 80 healthy volunteers 18 to 35 years old for the first phase of the trial, with initial results expected by January.
The first person was injected Aug. 3 with the vaccine, which uses a piece of DNA called a plasmid that is engineered to produce Zika proteins that prompt the body to launch an immune response. The vaccine cannot cause someone to become infected with Zika.
Fauci criticized Republican lawmakers who’ve blocked the $1.9 billion emergency funding package President Barack Obama requested from Congress in February, saying their demand that the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention transfer money appropriated for other illnesses to the Zika battle hurts efforts against other diseases.
“All of that is extremely damaging to the biomedical enterprise,” Fauci said. “We’re taking money away from cancer, diabetes — all those kinds of things.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell notified Congress in a letter Thursday that she had authorized reallocating $81 million from other health programs to pay for the Zika vaccine and preventative research.
“She made a courageous decision to do something that she really did not want to do, [which is] to take money away from other areas,” Fauci said.
Of the 8,580 cases of Zika detected in the United States and its territories, more than 75 percent are in Puerto Rico.
As of Aug. 10, the United States, including the District of Columbia, had 1,962 reported cases of Zika, according to the CDC. There were another 6,618 reported in the U.S. territories, with the majority of those cases in Puerto Rico.
Almost two-thirds of Americans are concerned about the virus spreading across greater swaths of the country in the coming months, according to poll results released Thursday by Suffolk University in Boston.
Fauci singled out Puerto Rico and Florida as epicenters of the spreading virus, which is carried mainly by the Aedes aegypti mosquito but can be transmitted sexually from an infected partner.
“Florida has a semitropical climate,” he said. “Right now in August of 2016, they have a considerable case of travel-related cases, and they have the mosquitoes. Right now, as of last count, there are 22 cases in Florida that are locally transmitted.”
The Florida Health Department on Thursday identified three more cases of mosquito-borne Zika, all in Miami-Dade County, bringing the state’s total of locally acquired cases to 25. Most of the cases stem from the Wynwood and Midtown neighborhoods.
The state also reported 21 new travel-related infections, with 17 in Broward County, two in Hernando County and one each in Miami-Dade and Seminole counties.
As of Thursday, Florida had 486 cases of Zika, more than any other state except New York. Of those, 57 cases involve pregnant women.
Two locally transmitted Zika cases have been identified in Broward County and one in Palm Beach County, but it is not clear whether mosquitoes transmitted those infections in the two counties or in Miami-Dade.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, and several House GOP members have broken ranks with their party by demanding that Congress approve at least a large portion of Obama’s emergency request.
The Senate approved a $1.1 billion funding bill in May and the House passed similar legislation in June, but the appropriations measure got bogged down in partisan politics when lawmakers tried to fuse the two measures into a single bill.
Democrats accused Republicans of adding last-minute provisions unrelated to Zika, among them cutting funds for Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, along with placing new restrictions on publicly funded abortions.
Rubio criticized fellow Republicans for months and more recently directed his ire at the Obama administration for refusing to reallocate previously appropriated money to the Zika fight.
“Today’s action is long overdue, and the Obama administration should do even more to find unspent funds that can be redirected toward fighting Zika in Florida, ” Rubio said of Burwell’s decision to transfer $81 million.
Rubio added: “As I’ve said repeatedly, we never should have gotten to this point. Congress should have passed additional funding months ago.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said that Dr. Anthony Fauci had criticized Republican lawmakers. He criticized the process that required transferring funds from other diseases to battle Zika. The article failed to make clear that the total number of Zika cases in Florida also includes those that were acquired by residents traveling outside the state. It is the locally transmitted cases that have been attributed to mosquitoes in an area north of downtown Miami, primarily Wynwood.