Obama strikes optimistic tone in fight against Zika

Obama strikes optimistic tone in fight against Zika
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President Obama on Thursday expressed confidence about the nation’s ability to beat the Zika virus, striking a more optimistic tone than some of his own federal researchers.

“We actually think there's a promising pathway for diagnostics and vaccines on this,” Obama said in a packed White House auditorium. “It's not a real complicated virus, apparently.”

The main challenge ahead, Obama said, is how to “figure out a production cycle that makes sense.”

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Obama’s optimistic remarks about understanding the science behind the Zika virus contrasts with the more cautious language used by most officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Officials from CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci have repeatedly underscored that the virus is relatively unknown in the medical world.

In multiple appearances on Capitol Hill over the last two weeks, Frieden and Fauci have described an aggressive effort to catch-up with the science of the virus.

The CDC has still not confirmed the correlation between the Zika virus and a potentially life-threatening birth defect called microcephaly — a link that has been reported in hundreds of cases across Central America.

“This is a new phenomenon, and we're working around the clock to learn as much as we can, as quickly as we can,” Frieden told the Senate health committee on Wednesday.

He said the CDC currently has an “imperfect” ability to diagnose Zika. He also described the mosquito spreading the virus as “very challenging to control.”

The development of a vaccine appears more hopeful, though it will include a host of regulatory and financial challenges.

Fauci, who oversees infectious disease research for the National Institutes of Health, told lawmakers Wednesday that he has “high” confidence a vaccine will be developed within the next several years. He said he was hopeful it could be available by late 2017.

Still, he said that timeline was “going to depend” on many factors.

“If you look at the standard way of dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, a vaccine like this would typically take 3 to 5 years,” Fauci said on Wednesday.

The crowd had gathered for the White House summit on precision medicine. The event marked one year since Obama first launched the public-private partnership, which aims to enlist 1 million volunteers for a massive collection of clinical data.