Infectious Diseases

13 July 2016

Slow Zika funding likely to delay vaccine testing

A delay in the development of a Zika vaccine is perhaps the most damaging result of the American government's inability to agree on an anti-Zika funding bill.

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Government research into finding a vaccine to protect against the Zika virus is likely to be delayed if Congress exits Washington through Labour Day without approving new money to battle the virus, a top government research scientist said.

Testing facing delays

The delay in funding vaccine development is perhaps the most damaging result of a divided Washington's inability to agree on an anti-Zika funding bill almost five month after President Barack Obama's request.

"It's going to take that much longer to prove that the vaccine works," said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, who says testing next January on a promising vaccine faces delays. "If it takes that much longer to prove that it works, then you take that much longer to get it out to the people who need it."

Read: Shots for other viruses offer clues for Zika vaccine

The impasse on Zika shows no signs of softening, even though taking a seven-week vacation without addressing the problem could be politically perilous for both Republicans controlling Congress and Democrats blocking Republicans' $1.1 billion take-it-or-leave-it measure to battle the virus.

Congress will also exit Washington with no action on gun control and little success in its efforts to open up and revive the process of passing the 12 annual spending bills. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., following the killing of five police officers in Dallas and protests by activists after police killed black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and St. Paul, Minnesota, officially shelved efforts to move bitterly contested legislation that would let federal authorities block gun sales to suspected terrorists.

'Blame game' in full force

"The action is to go back to our communities and have a candid conversation about the challenges we face as a country," Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said, adding that "there's no need for us to try to cram a majority position down at this point."

Partisan tensions over guns have been high since a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, last month. House Democrats staged a lengthy House floor sit-in two weeks ago to demand gun control votes. Ryan said he feels it is the wrong time to further inflame the situation.

Read: Genes may offer a way to stop Zika from spreading in the body

On Zika, however, the blame game was full on. Democrats last month filibustered a GOP-drafted Zika measure, largely over provisions in the bill to block Planned Parenthood from receiving money. A revote is expected to produce the same result this week, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has rejected efforts to reopen the measure, which faces a veto threat from the White House.

Obama requested $1.9 billion in February to battle Zika, but Congress has moved slowly in response.

A Senate Democratic aide said Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., broached a compromise with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to separate the Zika issue from a veterans funding bill, strip away the Planned Parenthood-related provision and dump a provision that would ease rules on pesticide spraying.

In exchange, Democrats would have accepted a modest package of spending cuts to help defray the cost of the measure.

Slow disbursement

McConnell, however, dismissed the offer, refusing to disavow the House GOP position on denying new money to Planned Parenthood.

"This is a crisis," McConnell said on Tuesday. "Our friends across the aisle will have to decide if they feel the same or if a partisan political group is worth delaying funding to protect families from Zika."

Read: Experimental Zika vaccine to begin human testing

An infection by the Zika virus can cause grave birth defects. Among the other consequences of the impasse on Zika, the administration says, is a slowdown in government-funded research to develop a fuller understanding of Zika's effects on pregnant women and their unborn children.

Meanwhile, Republicans said that because the administration has been slow to disburse almost $600 million in already available anti-Zika funds, the failure of Congress to act before recessing until after Labour Day won't have major effects.

"At this moment they still have money, but it won't last forever," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs a panel with budgeting jurisdiction over health programmes, including research at the National institutes of Health and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We getting to the point where both the CDC and the NIH are actually running out of money, and we have important work to do," Fauci said.

Read more:

Zika virus spreads to more tropical destinations

Pregnant women in SA warned about Zika virus

Link between Zika and microcephaly not yet proven

AP