Zika alarm rings out in DC

Zika alarm rings out in DC
© Getty Images

Dozens of lobbying groups flocked to Capitol Hill in the first three months of 2016 to lobby on Zika amid growing alarm about the spread of the virus.

In all, 57 companies, organizations, trade groups and universities reported advocating on Zika in some way between January and March, including the U.S. Travel Association, the March of Dimes, the National Pest Management Association, GlaxoSmithKline and
Vanderbilt University.

ADVERTISEMENT

Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in a press conference this month that Zika, a virus that can cause severe birth defects, has emerged to be “scarier than we initially thought.”

But lawmakers have yet to act on a February request from President Obama for $1.9 billion in emergency funds, and advocates say there is a narrow window for action before a possible summer outbreak.

“If we screw this up, you can’t put the genie in a bottle,” said Cynthia Pellegrini, the senior vice president for public policy and government affairs at the March of Dimes. “We’re going to have cases, and we’re going to say, ‘Expletive, expletive. If we had done something back in May or June it wouldn’t be this bad.’

“It won’t be this summer [when the disease manifests itself]; it’ll be when the women who get pregnant in the summer have babies” next spring, she said. “And that’s when it will all hit the fan.”

The March of Dimes, an organization dedicated to helping premature babies and those with birth defects, has taken the lead on Zika advocacy for public health groups. 

It has brought together an informal coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, Johnson & Johnson, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

In addition to a formal letter, Pellegrini said there have been scores of meetings with lawmakers where advocates urged quick action on emergency funding. 

Leaders of appropriators in the House and Senate have said publicly that they want to provide funding to fight Zika, but they are increasingly divided over how it is structured and whether it can wait until later this year.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he would prefer to handle the funding through the regular appropriations process, pushing the debate over emergency dollars until the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are in talks with Democrats about an emergency funding bill.

Pellegrini said lawmakers who hail from Southern states, which are the most likely to see Zika cases, are more tuned in to the crisis than their colleagues.

“You can tell which states are at DEFCON 1 and which states are not,” Pellegrini said, adding that some congressional offices knew the exact number of cases in their districts and states as of that day.

“And then there are others who are like, ‘Well, we’re not sure. … I need to hear more from my colleagues about this,’ ” Pellegrini said.

The virus has been spreading throughout the Americas and is primarily carried through two species of mosquito. As of yet, it has only reached the United States as a result of an individual returning from another country where the virus is prevalent.

However, lobbyists and public health officials say it is only a matter of time before that shifts.

“There is a real urgency in regard to these programs and the funding that underlies them,” said Kam Quarles, a director of legislative affairs at McDermott Will & Emery, which represents the American Mosquito Control Association. “We’re going into the spring and will be heading into the summer months before we know it. That’s when mosquitoes are moving around.” 

Quarles has been meeting with members of the House and Senate in addition to filing testimony with the appropriations committees. 

“The first strategy in dealing with Zika or [any of these tropical diseases] is knock the bugs down,” Quarles said. “That gives the CDC and private-sector partners time to develop a vaccine.”

Lawmakers can expect to hear more from the American Mosquito Control Association next month when it holds its annual fly-in visit for members.

The National Pest Management Association has also been active on Capitol Hill, talking with committee leaders about what is happening on the ground in places at risk of seeing a large number of infected mosquitoes. 

“When people understand that this disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, and they encounter mosquitoes on a daily basis, there is an increase in concern that they have,” said Andrew Bray, the director of public policy for the group. “We want to make sure we’re part of the solution and that people understand and are aware of what the structural pest management industry is doing.”

Mosquito abatement efforts mostly take place on the local level but vary in quality. Many cities rely on assistance from the federal government, but programs aiming to track and kill disease-carrying bugs have been slashed in recent years.

In an early legislative win for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, Congress sent a bill to the White House that allows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fast-track approval of new drugs that address Zika.

At least 20 companies and groups had been pushing for the FDA to add Zika to its Priority Review Voucher, according to lobbying disclosure records. Those include Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Intrexon, Sanofi and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

The program is meant to incentivize companies to develop treatments for diseases that may not bring in large profits while reducing a drug’s review time by four months. The vouchers can also be sold.

Representatives from other groups outside of the healthcare space, including the U.S. Travel Association, have also been meeting with administration officials and members of Congress on Zika.

They are trying to dispel fears about traveling as a result of the virus, said Jonathan Grella, the group’s executive vice president.

“We’re advocating both for greater funding and greater awareness: making the public aware that Zika has the full attention of our industry and federal authorities, and making policymakers aware that these issues can rapidly become a drag on the economy if fears are left out there to fester,” he wrote in an email.

While Obama has already shifted nearly $600 million from fighting Ebola to combating Zika, lobbyists are on a quest to ensure Congress approves more funding soon.

“Emergency funding exists as a mechanism for a reason,” said Pellegrini, of the March of Dimes. “From our group’s perspective, a virus that destroys babies’ brains is the definition of an emergency.”