Eradication of Zika Virus Funding

Eradication of Zika Virus Funding

July 26, 2016

July 26, 2016

Congress is in the midst of its seven-week summer recess period. Although the break coincides with the height of mosquito season, no legislation was passed in regards to the emerging Zika virus concerns. This was not for a lack of proposals on the matter, but rather for the differences between them.

The accompanying infographic shows a comparison of what was requested by the President in February, and what was proposed in May in the Senate (S.A. 3900) and in the House of Representatives (H.R. 5243). Of particular interest to medical and scientific researchers are the funds allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That department includes federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A further break down of funds allocated within HHS on each proposal is also illustrated.

One way the proposals differ is in how long the funds are available. The $1.885 billion proposal from the White House and $1.108 billion proposal from the Senate would have granted the funds until expended, or through 2017. But the $622 million House proposal only slated funds until the end of the fiscal year 2016 (September 30). If the House bill were signed in to law, many of the funds would barely have a window of availability by the time all the paperwork is done.

The quantity and distribution of funds also differs. Proportionally, the House proposal favors the NIH, while the other two favor the CDC. The Food and Drug Administration would receive $10 million under the President’s proposal “…to support the development, review, regulation, and surveillance of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapies”, according to the text. But no funding was specifically designated for the Food and Drug Administration in either of the congressional proposals. Likewise, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid were shut out from any Zika-related funding in both congressional bills. This money was requested by the President to supplement Medicaid programs in Puerto Rico, where the Zika virus is circulating and has caused at least one case of microcephaly so far.

Ultimately, political compromise was stifled by attachments to the House bill that included other unrelated legislation, as well as provisions that would impose limits on birth control and pesticide regulations.

Although there is a lack of emergency funding, there is certainly not a lack of interest among researchers in the Zika virus. At the Biodesign Institute, scientists have begun to turn their attention to Zika projects. Professor Alexander Green from the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics and his colleagues have already introduced a low-cost, rapid diagnostic sensor test for the Zika virus.

And at the Biodesign Center for Innovations in Medicine, director Stephen Albert Johnston was recently awarded a $540,000 supplement by the Department of Homeland Security to develop a serological test to distinguish Zika from dengue virus infection by using his immunosignature platform that was developed with colleagues at the Biodesign Institute.

For now, research and development such as this will continue to be financed by funding that previously may have been intended for other projects.This pattern flows all the way back to the NIH and CDC, which must likewise finance their emergency response to the Zika virus with quickly diminishing funds that were originally designated for the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014.

This adds pressure to the NIH, which is the main funding agency for all health-related research in the U.S. The annual federal budget for the NIH has been stagnant at around $30 billion for the last decade, and has not kept pace with inflation. This amounts to an effective decrease in funding by 22 percent during this timeframe. Consequently, the success rate for new research grants has dropped accordingly, causing increasing pressure on academics to continue their research ---possibly creating a chilling effect that will stifle U.S. innovation.

Lack of emergency funding for the Zika virus may have implications for people who live in states where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is present. The first cases of possible mosquito-borne transmission in the continental U.S. are currently being investigated in Florida, where the mosquito is prevalent. In Arizona, this mosquito has been detected to some extent since 1931. By the turn of the millennium, it became established in several communities throughout the state, including Tempe. So far, the Zika virus has not been detected in the mosquito populations here. But it will require a sustained effort to keep it that way, which depends on funding as well.

In the interim, there are some things that every person can do to help. Arizonans are advised to wear a reliable insect repellant when outdoors this summer and eliminate certain kinds of yard clutter. Things like old tires, flower pots, or clogged gutters that can yield stagnant pools of water after monsoon rainstorms are prime breeding grounds for mosquitos.

Perhaps discussions on these proposals will continue in Congress when the summer recess period ends after Labor Day. Perhaps a compromise will be reached that will hasten efforts to study and prevent the spread of Zika virus, and treat those affected by it. Or perhaps the U.S. will dodge the Zika bullet that has panicked much of the Southern hemisphere. But for now, this will remain uncertain.

 

Written by: Robert Lawrence, Ph.D., postdoctoral research associate, Biodesign Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology