Zika funding at center of fight between Obama, Congress
WASHINGTON — Fourteen Ohioans, including one woman from Columbus, have tested positive for the Zika virus, but federal funding aimed at researching and developing could be at least a month away.
President Barack Obama asked for $1.9 billion in emergency federal dollars to fight the virus back in February — money to research, prevent and develop vaccines and drugs to treat the disease. But the House has only allocated $622 million — most of it transferred from a fund slated for the Ebola virus. Meanwhile, the Senate in late May passed $1.1 billion, which Obama argues is insufficient but which both Ohio senators voted for. The two sides have yet to come together to iron out the differences in their bills.
Republicans say they are worried about handing Obama a “blank check,” which he could use on other emergencies, and they’d prefer that the money be offset by cuts to other programs.
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, said the Obama administration has already moved $589 million from other sources to pay for research. The House’s $622 million, he said, would bring that level to more than $1 billion.
“The plan is to get the money out the door,” Tiberi said, adding the immediate priority is vaccine development. He said that money is provided through other federal sources.
But Obama said the request was based on public health assessments and documented need to fight the virus before it spreads extensively in the United States. "We didn't just choose $1.9 billion from the top of our heads," he said.
"With 14 confirmed Zika cases in Ohio, the most recent occurring yesterday in Columbus, it is time Congress work together to address this growing public health threat," said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Township.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 618 cases as of June 1 in the continental U.S. and 1,114 in U.S. territories. Of those cases, 341 involved pregnant women.
The disease is spread primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito, and its most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. The illness is usually mild, but a Zika infection in a pregnant woman can cause serious birth defects, such as microcephaly — an abnormally small head and brain.
So far, those affected in the U.S. have largely been people who have traveled to countries where the disease is prevalent. But there’s worry that summer could be a key time for the disease to infiltrate the United States.
Earlier this week, a 38-year-old Columbus woman tested positive for the virus after visiting the Dominican Republic. The woman is not pregnant, according to public health officials. She represented Franklin County’s first known Zika case.
“The good news is that there’s no shortage of funding,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, who said that the existing $589 million with the $622 million approved by the House would represent a strong beginning for funding. He said that $622 million may end up increasing when the House enters negotiations with the Senate. “We just need enough money to get things started.”
This article first appeared on The Columbus Dispatch's website on June 8, 2016.