The nation’s top disease official warned Thursday that he is running out of time to prevent a Zika outbreak — the same day Congress left town without approving more funds to fight the virus.
“We have a narrow window of opportunity to scale up effective Zika prevention measures, and that window of opportunity is closing,” Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said during a speech at the National Press Club.
The CDC director spoke to a crowd of public health advocates just minutes after the House and Senate began talks to merge their two funding bills for Zika. Both fall short of President Obama’s $1.9 billion funding request to fight Zika in U.S. states and territories and abroad.
Of that amount, $828 million would go to the CDC, which Frieden described as “our best, most honest estimate of what we need to fight the epidemic.”
Frieden endorsed the Senate’s package, which provides $1.1 billion in emergency funding, including “nearly all of what CDC requested.”
“It would allow us to have a really great start,” Frieden said.
The Senate’s funding levels are nearly twice those in the House bill, which includes just $622 million, most of which is redirected from existing Health Department programs like the effort against Ebola.
Without specifically calling out the GOP, Frieden rattled off the criteria for “emergency funding” — a situation that is unexpected, catastrophic and has the capacity for permanent damage. The Zika virus, he said, clearly meets all three.
House Republicans, however, have so far refused to approve emergency funding because they say it simply adds to the deficit. As House and Senate lawmakers move to conference the two bills after returning from recess in June, their biggest challenge will likely be how to pay for that funding.
Frieden, who has led the CDC for seven years and typically avoids politicking, was direct in his plea for Congress to urgently approve the administration’s funding request.
"We lost time fighting Ebola because we couldn’t immediately respond rapidly," he said in a nearly hourlong speech. "I fear that we’re losing time with Zika."
He underscored the urgency of the funding request, pointing to the upcoming Memorial Day weekend as the unofficial start of mosquito season in the U.S.
Frieden recalled a meeting in February when administration officials first issued their funding request to Congress and told Frieden he wouldn't see any of that money for at least three months.
“My jaw dropped, literally,” he said.
The CDC is monitoring about 300 pregnant women with the Zika virus in U.S. states and territories. The disease is known to cause a severe birth defect called microcephaly, in which infants are born with abnormally small brains.
The virus remains difficult to diagnose, and there are no available treatments. A vaccine against Zika could begin clinical trials as soon as next fall.