White House to redirect unused Ebola money to prepare for Zika virus

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In an effort to take immediate action against the Zika virus, the White House said it will redirect $589 million of existing funds, including $510 million which had been designated to fight Ebola.

The funding is needed for detection, prevention and response efforts, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said Wednesday.

She noted that more than 300 cases of the virus have been confirmed in the continental United States, all of them travel-related. There are also more than 300 cases of the virus confirmed in the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where most of the cases are locally transmitted. This means individuals are being infected by mosquitoes carrying the virus.

There are about 40 million people traveling between the continental United States and areas where the virus is circulating, according to Burwell. The primary goal, she said, is to protect pregnant women and those who may become pregnant, because the virus is linked to a neurological birth defect and other fetal abnormalities. Experts agree that there are many unknowns when it comes to the virus and more is being learned every day.

In February the administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency supplemental funding to fight the Zika virus. Congress has yet to act on that request. “Nearly two months have passed and the situation continues to grow more critical,” said Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Donovan made it clear the redirected money does not replace the pending request to Congress. He said the $589 million will need to be replaced.

Without this money, the administration said, mosquito surveillance and control, vaccine development, and diagnostic testing improvements will be hindered.

Urging Congress to act immediately, Donovan said, “We should not play with fire here. We should not risk the outbreak spreading and getting out of control.”

By Debra Goldschmidt