This summer as temperatures rise and the Olympics approach, many Americans are increasingly concerned about the threat posed by the Zika virus, a mosquito born virus. Many expectant mothers and women of child-bearing age, however, are living in outright fear, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed an alarming clinical linkage between Zika infection during pregnancy and severe birth defects in some cases. The virus is primarily spread through bites of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, by sexual contact with someone actively infected with Zika, or transferred through the placenta of an affected mother; it usually produces only mild symptoms that appear in approximately one-fifth of those adults infected.
Addressing this public health threat head-on is a top priority of Republicans in Congress. We have to do the best we can to prevent the spread of this virus and protect the next generation. But we’re also looking beyond this latest crisis to strengthen our underlying biodefense infrastructure so we can respond rapidly and effectively to both manmade and natural emerging biological threats in the future.
The bipartisan Zika funding bill that Senate Democrats struck down this week would have zeroed in on the critical elements of Zika prevention by both supporting efforts to disrupt the mosquitoes that carry this virus and by doubling down on vaccine research, development, and production. It rejects calls from our colleagues across the aisle to use this public health emergency as an excuse to unnecessarily increase funding to Title X clinics like Planned Parenthood, or to increase non-Zika Medicaid funding by a quarter of a billion dollars. In fact, the Zika Supplemental Act rejected in the Senate this week exceeded President Obama’s request for vaccine development and research by more than $100 million!
While the President asked for what’s essentially a $1.9 billion blank check, our proposed legislation actively calls for tight monetary oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately. Cumulatively, the legislation would fund $1.1 billion over the course of the next 15 months. This new funding would come in addition to the $589 million already spent - for a grand total of $1.689 billion. And more than 2/3 of our proposed Zika funding comes from existing funding that has not been spent in Obamacare, on the now-gone Ebola epidemic, and from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administrative slush fund.
But responsible stewardship of America’s public health means more than just addressing the latest individual crisis. In our interconnected world, Americans are increasingly in danger from naturally-occurring and manmade threats that come in the form of diseases, viruses, dirty bombs, and more. Be it H1N1, Ebola, Anthrax, or Zika, the wack-a-mole approach to trying to solve each threat as it arises through emergency funding is not an effective means of protecting the American people.
Make no mistake, while we are acting with precision and strength to combat this menacing Zika virus now, our broader vigilance should not wane. Any attempts to weaken our biodefense infrastructure and related public health preparedness represent a serious threat to our future abilities to respond to a crisis.
We are fortunate to have programs such as Project BioShield, a program specifically designed to bolster the research, development, and purchase of effective medical countermeasures that protect Americans from biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear threats—items that by definition don’t have a private sector market and thereby require government support. The best way to save lives in future outbreaks is to have drugs or vaccines ready before the crisis hits.
Given all of these repeated crises and increased threats, it is bizarre that President Obama has repeatedly attempted to slash funding for Project BioShield in many of his budget proposals over the years—including calling for a $160 million cut to Project BioShield’s Special Reserve Fund this year alone. Now is not the time to shortchange America’s biodefense capacity.
Protecting public health of Americans today and for future generations is our responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. While Democrats in Congress continue to play politics with the health of our women and children, Republicans are offering real, targeted solutions to fighting the Zika virus. We can deliver on that responsibility through our focused Zika response plan (that emphasizes vaccine development and mosquito control), as well as through our sustained commitment to building our biodefense capacity.
Rep. Andy Harris represents Maryland’s First District and is a practicing obstetric anesthesiologist who has done National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored research. He is currently serving on the House Appropriations Committee, as well as the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.