After months of delay, money will be divided among all 50 states to bolster efforts against Zika infections and help expand clinical trials aimed at testing several types of vaccines, federal health experts said Monday.
The money is from the $1.1 billion federal allocation approved last week by Congress as part of a new budget bill and came after months of partisan fighting on Capitol Hill. Democrats had highlighted the need to battle a public health emergency as Republicans held firm on fiscal restraint.
An estimated $933 million will be divided to fund vaccine research and aid state programs in mosquito control, surveillance and monitoring. The rest of the funds will go to the government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and other agencies for an array of medical studies into the virus and rapid diagnostic tests.
Inadequate funding throughout the year, experts said Monday, has had an impact on several fronts, including efforts to develop a vaccine. The $1.1 billion is nearly half of what President Barack Obama requested in February, they said.
“We are behind where we should be in vaccine development,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, speaking at a news briefing of federal experts Monday.
“Vaccine developers walked away from us because they were not certain that the money would be there,” she said.
Lurie said it’s unknown whether the pharmaceutical companies that declined to help the government work on Zika vaccines can be lured back now that money is available. She would not name the pharmaceutical companies that left the early vaccine discussions.
Another question mark Monday was the precise date Zika funding would reach the states, although health authorities speculated that it could take at least a few months.
New York has the highest tally of Zika infections — 811 as of last week — all diagnosed in people who had traveled to endemic regions of the world. Florida, a state where mosquitoes have already spread the virus, is second with 731. An estimated 59 people in South Florida contracted Zika viral infections by way of the insect carrier.
All told, more than 25,000 people have contracted Zika in the United States and its territories, including 2,000 pregnant women. In July, New York City health authorities announced the first case of a baby diagnosed with microcephaly, a congenital condition marked by small head and brain size. Babies diagnosed with the disorder suffer severe mental retardation, doctors say.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described the emergence of Zika virus in the United States as an unpredicted — and unpredictable — health threat that has produced more questions than answers.
“We have been working 24/7 to prevent the spread of Zika in the United States,” he said during the same briefing Monday.
While microcephaly is a known consequence of Zika, Frieden said, it is likely that further research will reveal that the virus leads to a syndrome, just as rubella virus, the pathogen that triggers German measles, that causes a multitude of problems.
Rubella syndrome can be characterized by a list of maladies that can include microcephaly, heart damage, liver enlargement, deafness, cataracts, as well as problems with the spleen and bone marrow.
Frieden said it’s vital to conduct research on Zika because some conditions may not be immediately evident after birth but emerge years later. Vaccination eliminated rubella-associated health threats in newborns.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a DNA vaccine is the farthest along in development and 80 people between the ages of 18 and 35 have been recruited in the clinical trial. Fauci said the hope is to eventually expand clinical testing to 5,000 people.
The vaccine is an advanced innovation in which a strand of DNA engineered in the lab is designed to mimic a snippet of the viral genetic code. It is injected into cells of volunteers. It is not being tested on pregnant women, Fauci said.
“You don’t [test] in pregnant women until you have strong safety data,” he said.