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GOP Congressmen Question The Need For $2 Billion To Fight Zika Virus

A microbiologist sorts mosquitoes collected in Hutchins, Texas, to test for Zika virus.
LM Otero
A microbiologist sorts mosquitoes collected in Hutchins, Texas, to test for Zika virus.

Republican representatives continue to question the need for about $2 billion in emergency funding requested by the Obama administration to respond to the Zika virus.

Congressmen including Dr. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, asked in a hearing of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday whether funds earmarked for combating the Ebola virus couldn't be transferred to the fight against Zika virus.

But federal health officials said there's only $9 million left of the original $238 million in funding the National Institutes of Health received for Ebola virus research.

"We don't have any really substantial money that's left on Ebola," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Taking that money away could cripple the effort to develop an Ebola vaccine and to continue studies on thousands of survivors in West Africa.

"Ebola is not over," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "As of today, 84 CDC top staff are in West Africa responding to the Ebola outbreak. Last month, labs in West Africa tested approximately 10,000 samples for Ebola. It was only in January that we had the most recent Ebola case in Sierra Leone. So we're still actively responding and tracking."

Still, some remain skeptical of the need for emergency supplemental funding.

"You're asking us for more money and you're saying it's an emergency. I might believe you more that it's an emergency if you would be willing to say, 'And we really don't want you to go down there,' " said Burgess, referring to the fact that the CDC has not told travelers to avoidcountries with Zika transmission.

At this point, the CDC recommends that women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant limit travel to places with ongoing virus transmission.

"We need to give people information and allow them to make the choices," said Frieden. The concern is primarily for developing fetuses. In most adults, the virus is brief and mild.

Based on other research on similar viruses, one scientist said, a woman would likely only have to wait four weeks after having the virus to conceive a baby without worrying about the potential effects of Zika on the fetus. "It's about the only good news here," said Dr. Jeanne Sheffield, director of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In Florida, where the mosquito that transmits the virus is abundant, one company is gearing up to test genetically engineered mosquitoes.

When these genetically engineered mosquitoes mate with wild mosquitoes, the resulting offspring can't reproduce. Fewer Aedes aegypti mosquitoes means less chance for Zika to spread.

Dr. Luciana Borio, acting chief scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, told the subcommittee that a British company, Oxitec, has done extensive field testing of the mosquitoes in Brazil, the Cayman Islands, Panama and Malaysia. It is now preparing for a test in Key Haven, Fla.

"What we don't know right now is where the public stands," Borio said. "So, what I can tell you right now is we are prepared to move very quickly on this."

As Shots has reported, despite aggressive efforts at mosquito control, which do not yet include genetically engineered insects, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has only been able to halve its population of Aedes aegypti.

"The data seems to be promising in terms of reducing the mosquito populations in those small field trials and we are greatly expediting the process," Borio said.

The trial in Florida can only start after a period of public comment on the potential environmental impact of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes. After the test, Oxitec would then need to get FDA approval for further use.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
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