WASHINGTON (CN) - Despite some seemingly convenient math, public health officials warned Congress Wednesday against simply repurposing money set aside for the Ebola fight to meet President Barack Obama's call for increased funding for Zika virus research.
Earlier this week, Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to help fight against a potential outbreak of Zika virus. The emergency funds would go toward mosquito-control efforts in the United States and abroad, as well as toward research and health care costs related to curbing the virus' flow.
In the past year, the Zika virus has spread from its traditional home in Africa and Southeast Asia to Brazil and is now threatening most of South America as well as parts of the southern United States.
While most people who contract Zika hardly notice they have it, there seems to be a connection between the virus and microcephaly - a birth defect that causes infants to be born with unusually small heads and can cause developmental delays and even death. Because of this link, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have issued warnings against pregnant women traveling to Zika-infected nations.
Shortly after rumblings of Obama's request moved through Washington earlier this month, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, called on the administration to use funds left over from the fight against Ebola in its efforts against Zika.
As of the end of 2015, $1.44 billion of the money given to the Department of Health and Human Services to fight Ebola remained unobligated, Rogers wrote in a letter to the White House last week. Rogers suggested the administration simply use this money to fight the newest disease threat.
"If the aim of the request is to mount as rapid a response as possible, it is clear to us that the most expeditious way to identify the needed funding is to maximize the use of unobligated funds previously provided for Ebola response, prevention, and preparedness in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015," the letter states. "These funds can and should be prioritized to meet the most pressing needs of mounting a rapid and full response to Zika."
While the money left over from the battle against the Ebola outbreak last year seems to fit perfectly into the president's request, an official with the CDC told the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets Wednesday that filching it from other areas like the Ebola fund could have major negative impacts.
"We think that would be terribly dangerous in terms of the outbreaks that are ongoing," Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for the CDC, said at the hearing.
Schuchat said the resources that were set aside for Ebola are already being spent around the globe, including in 17 nations at risk of an outbreak like the one seen in Western Africa last year.
"The outbreak is out of the headlines, but there is substantial effort [ongoing]," Schuchat said.
Schuchat detailed the government's efforts to raise awareness of Zika and the steps that can be taken to prevent it, as well as practical initiatives like distributing kits to test for the disease and implementing mosquito-control programs.
"While we're doing much already, Zika requires a robust, all-of-government response, as put forward in the emergency Zika funding request," Schuchat said.
Moving money from funds meant for other initiatives to Zika could hinder the government's efforts in other areas, Schuchat and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with the National Institutes of Health, said.
"Our sources right now, without the supplement that's been asked for by the president, is moving money out of doing other things," Fauci said.
This means making researchers previously dedicated to studying other viruses in South America transition to digging into the Zika virus at the last minute. Without the president's funds, the country's public health agencies will not be able to do everything necessary to combat Zika.
"I will not be able to proceed with the trial that I described to you without additional money," Fauci said, speaking of a trial Zika vaccine he described in his opening statement that could be ready for testing this year.
Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, who chaired the hearing and asked the witnesses a series of questions based on Rogers' letter, seemed to understand the officials' concerns with moving the money from Ebola coffers.
Mica acknowledged "you can't rob Peter to pay Paul," and said after the hearing he would take the lessons from the hearing back to the appropriators for them to find a source for Obama's request.
"It's $1.9 billion, that's a big number," Mica said in an interview. "There are certain things that are much lower numbers, and some of the research, some of the vaccines, we don't want that to stop as he just mentioned, the warnings that have to be out there. That money needs to be out there as soon as possible and I don't know the total amount of that."
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