White House redirects $510 million in Ebola funds to Zika fight

Angelica Pereira feeds her daughter Luiza, who was born with microcephaly in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Brazil, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

As Ebola flare-ups continue in West Africa, the U.S. is setting its sights on combating the Zika virus using money originally allocated for the Ebola outbreak. A divided Congress has yet to meet President Barack Obama’s emergency request for $1.9 billion for Zika. Shuffling the leftover money will help fund research on the virus and the development of treatments and vaccines without sparking a budgetary brawl.

Roughly $510 million left over from the $5 billion in funds approved by Congress in 2014 for Ebola will be devoted to preventing the spread of Zika and mitigating the health problems caused by the virus. The White House used the announcement to press on members of Congress to approve the Zika funding request.

“These efforts need to continue, and they can’t be stopped or short-changed,” said Health and Human Services Director Sylvia Burwell. “We have two global public health crises, Ebola and Zika, and we can’t set one aside to deal with the other.”

Despite this stop-gap measure, the White House still wants full funding for its Zika request, and doesn’t count the money from this shuffle against the amount it needs to fully fund the fight against Zika, other officials said. Pressure mounted earlier this year to use Ebola funds as news reports on the spread of Zika captured public attention and the Ebola outbreak entered its final stages.

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The heads of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases warned last month that their agencies could not do their jobs without sufficient funding. Vaccine trials that could begin later this year would stall without money.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress wouldn’t budge on approving the emergency funding request. Meetings on the subject in the House Appropriations Committee were never scheduled as members of Congress said they wanted to see the Ebola money spent first and called for more details on the proposed Zika spending. The White House resisted, saying that it wanted to make sure it saw through the end of the Ebola outbreak.

“We want to make sure that we have learned the lessons from a couple of years ago that we sort of follow through on the necessary steps,” said Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, in February. “So the point is, we don’t want to take money that is currently being used to make sure we follow through on our Ebola response and have it be diverted to this latest effort.”

The diversion of money from Ebola to Zika does not leave the Ebola account completely empty. Some $1.4 billion in funds for Ebola remained as of September 2015. The large sum, as countries neared eradication, led to the introduction of a bill in Congress that would allow the shift of remaining money to other areas.

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Just days after the World Health Organization said the Ebola outbreak was over, reports of cases in Liberia and Guinea emerged. The WHO confirmed that one of the people who died from Ebola in Liberia had traveled to Guinea a week prior. Her son is currently being treated and dozens of people who came in contact with the family are being tracked. For months, the region has experienced sporadic cases, showing that Ebola is not completely gone.

But attention in the U.S. is now squarely on the Zika virus. With evidence connecting it to birth defects, the mosquito-borne disease poses a risk to Americans as summer looms. Puerto Rico is facing an outbreak that could lead to hundreds of thousands of cases and result in thousands of birth defects, U.S. health officials warned.

“Puerto Rico is on the front lines of the battle against Zika,” said CDC head Tom Frieden to the media last month. “We need urgent action to minimize the risk to pregnant women. Funding from Congress is urgently needed. We hope Congress will rapidly provide resources for a robust response.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.