Back in February, President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus epidemic. But it took Congress the better part of eight months to (mostly) follow through.
Lawmakers approved $1.1 billion in anti-Zika funds during a late-night session on Thursday as part of a broader stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown. The legislation includes a variety of other appropriations as well, including for flood relief in Louisiana.
The new money, which public health officials like National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Dr. Francis Collins had been demanding with increasing desperation as available funds wound down over the summer, will be used to pay for research into a Zika vaccine. It’ll also go toward efforts to minimize infections in the U.S. through aggressive mosquito-control tactics. In women, this will also reduce risk for deadly birth defects linked to the virus.
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Obama slammed Congress’ lackadaisical attitude towards passing anti-Zika legislation in August as the number of U.S. cases began to explode during the hot and humid summer months, when Zika-carrying mosquitoes thrive. Lawmakers had left D.C. for a seven-week summer recess without taking any action even though local transmission cases were reported in Florida.
Politico’s Dan Diamond has been keeping a tally of Congress’ efforts (or lack thereof) on the virus, which has now infected 23,135 people in U.S. states and territories.
The reason for the delay: Political disagreements over funding sources likely driven by the 2016 election season. For instance, Democrats balked at Republican efforts to strip funding from Obamacare and Planned Parenthood, as well as a provision that would weaken pesticide restrictions. Congressional Democrats denounced such measures as “poison pills” and used that language to justify their filibuster of a Zika bill in the Senate.
The funding’s ultimate effect is still an open question. A vaccine is still likely years away from development, and there are no existing treatments for Zika (although there’s some early evidence that certain older drugs for other conditions may show promise against the virus).