The Zika virus is creeping into politics, with Republicans beginning to question whether the Obama administration is doing enough to protect the public from an outbreak.
Fears about the virus grew Tuesday when it was announced that the virus has been transmitted sexually in Dallas — the same city where a scare over the Ebola virus began in 2014.
Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRepublicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown Trump: 'No doubt' we'll make a deal on healthcare Overnight Finance: WH wants to slash billions | Border wall funding likely on hold | Wells Fargo to pay 0M over unauthorized accounts | Dems debate revamping consumer board MORE (R-Wis.) also discussed the virus during his face-to-face meeting with President Obama on Tuesday.
Zika, which is mainly transmitted through mosquito bites, isn’t deadly like Ebola. Four out of five people who get it have no symptoms; the rest have mild symptoms including fever or rash that last up to a week.
The real concern is for pregnant women, because the virus has been linked to a serious birth defect called microcephaly, in which a baby’s head is abnormally small. The defect is associated with intellectual disabilities and delayed development.
Republican strategists say it’s too early to tell whether the Zika outbreak will create a political uproar similar to the one around Ebola.
“Donald TrumpDonald TrumpManafort-linked accounts on Cyprus probed: report Republican failure Trump's environmental order jeopardizes our national security MORE could tweet about it tomorrow and it could be a big political story,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who advised Scott Brown’s 2014 Senate race in New Hampshire. Brown endorsed Trump for president on Tuesday.
Zika has not yet moved to the center of the White House race, but that could change once warm weather arrives and mosquitoes become more prevalent. The spread of the virus in Latin America could also create a link to the immigration debate.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioRepublicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report Week ahead: Senate panel to vote on Trump's Labor pick Senators introduce new Iran sanctions MORE (R-Fla.), a presidential candidate, wrote a little-noticed letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week saying he was “alarmed” by the virus and asking about preparations, including “potential screening of travelers from affected areas.”
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt brought the issue up in an interview with GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson last week. Hewitt said he couldn’t believe that Zika did not come up in the last Republican debate.
“If it gets tied into illegal immigration and travel visas, then the Republicans may have something,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, though he cautioned that Zika appears to be less dangerous and frightening than Ebola.
So far, the response to Zika on Capitol Hill has been mostly bipartisan. Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a joint letter asking the administration about preparations for a potential outbreak in the U.S.
The Obama administration, aware of the criticism it received over its response to Ebola, has been looking to emphasize its readiness for Zika.
The White House last week released a photo of Obama meeting with his advisers on the issue in the Situation Room, and press secretary Josh Earnest has referred frequently to that meeting.
“Obviously, our public health experts both at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the [National Institutes of Health] are mindful of the risks that are associated with the Zika virus,” Earnest said last week. “And the president is himself concerned about it. That’s why he convened a meeting here at the White House yesterday to discuss it.”
The White House points to the administration’s education efforts, including advising pregnant women to postpone travel to certain affected countries, as well as moves to ramp up research on a vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that Zika is likely to create public anxiety.
“You’ll probably see some of it: ‘Well this is it. It’s a game changer … it’s going to spread throughout the country,’ ” said Fauci, who become an almost daily presence on cable news in the fall of 2014 trying to get out factual information about Ebola. He said his job this time will be to say, “No, hold on.”
Any outbreaks of Zika in the United States will be “limited,” Fauci said.
Fauci and Dr. Anne Schuchat, a CDC official, told reporters last week that other mosquito-borne viruses, such as dengue and chikungunya, have been limited to small outbreaks at the southern tips of Florida and Texas.
Therefore, Fauci said, a widespread outbreak in the U.S. is “not something that we expect to see.”
Health officials also point out that the U.S. has more widespread use of air conditioning and window screens, as well as a less dense population, compared to areas in South and Central America, where there are larger outbreaks of mosquitoes transmitting the virus.
Tuesday’s announcement of a confirmed case of sexual transmission did throw in a new twist. There had previously been reports of sexual transmission, but this case provided confirmation. The CDC issued new guidance encouraging condom use and warning people to avoid exposure to semen from someone with Zika.
The CDC is still trying to determine how long someone can transmit Zika through sex after becoming infected. A longer time period would make the virus harder to control, experts say.
Experts say Zika is mainly transmitted through mosquitoes. Fauci said that the confirmation of sexual transmission did not change his assessment that outbreaks of Zika in the U.S. would be limited.
One other lesson of the Ebola scare is that the political uproar can outpace the actual danger.
In 2014, many prominent Republicans called for a travel ban against the affected African countries, a move opposed by many experts. While the administration had missteps, Ebola did not end up spreading beyond a handful of cases in the United States.
“We had a huge outbreak of Ebola anxiety, and we had very few cases,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Education is good. Hype is not.”