The Obama administration is warning that the world’s first Zika virus vaccine will likely be stalled if Congress doesn’t approve new funding before the end of the summer recess.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is expected to exhaust its $47 million in Zika vaccine funding by the end of August, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell warned in a letter to Capitol Hill this week.
Without new funding, the NIH will not be able to start the second phase of the vaccine’s clinical trials early next year.
The federal government’s other vaccine development agency — the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) — will also run out of money by the end of August. BARDA, which helps private companies finance new vaccines, had a total of $85 million to fight Zika.
“A delay in this stage of development will delay when a safe and effective Zika vaccine is available to the American public,” Burwell wrote in two letters Wednesday. She said a lack of funding could also halt the development of other vaccines, as well as diagnostics, therapeutics and mosquito control.
The NIH began its first clinical trial for a Zika vaccine Wednesday, marking a key milestone in a possibly yearslong process.
The nearly yearlong study will include at least 80 adults at three study sites in the U.S. If the vaccine is proven to be safe, the NIH will begin the second part of its trial in Zika-affected countries early next year. That second step cannot take place without more funding as soon as possible, Burwell warned.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the NIH’s infectious disease center, said the vaccine candidate has had “very encouraging” results in animal testing.
“A safe and effective vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection and the devastating birth defects it causes is a public health imperative,” Fauci wrote in a statement. “Although it will take some time before a vaccine against Zika is commercially available, the launch of this study is an important step forward."
The vaccine was developed at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center earlier this year. It is similar to another vaccine that’s already being tested in humans to prevent West Nile virus, another mosquito-borne disease.
The Zika virus has been particularly concerning to federal health officials because it is known to cause birth defects. The long-term effects of Zika remain relatively unknown.