- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2014

The Ebola finger-pointing kicked into a higher gear Monday as politicians in Washington blamed each other for cutting research funding, even as the federal government’s top disease chief apologized for suggesting workers at a Dallas hospital failed to follow protocols, leading to this weekend’s first U.S.-contracted case of the deadly virus.

Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that the diagnosis of the nurse — identified by local news reports as 26-year-old Nina Pham — shouldn’t be an occasion for placing blame. Instead, he said, it should force health officials to rethink and redouble their preventive efforts, because something went wrong.

And he warned he would not be surprised if other U.S. doctors or nurses contract the deadly infection from having treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died last week at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

“This is because the health care workers who cared for [Duncan] may have had a breach of the same nature of the individual who appears now to have a preliminary positive test,” Dr. Frieden told reporters in a press conference in Atlanta.

While CDC investigators try to work out what went wrong in Dallas, politicians were already seeking to lay the blame and claim partisan advantage over what went wrong in the years leading up to the pandemic that has already killed more than 4,000 people in a half-dozen African countries.

Several Democrats on the campaign trail said voters should blame the GOP, arguing that Republicans cut the CDC’s budget while at the same time voting to preserve tax cuts.

SEE ALSO: Priebus knocks ‘desperation’ from ‘idiotic group’ pinning Ebola on Republicans

“House Republicans’ priorities aren’t just out-of-touch, they’re dangerous,” said Rep. Steve Israel, House Democrats’ campaign chief.

He based his attack on a 2011 vote, soon after Republicans took control of the House, that would have trimmed CDC funding. Last week, meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the budget sequesters — a deal worked out by both Mr. Obama and the House GOP — had cut CDC funding.

Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, also pointed Monday to what he called “chronic underfunding” of initiatives such as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Hospital Preparedness Program, saying in an MSNBC interview that the “drastic cuts” should be reversed.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal fired back with an op-ed on Politico.com, saying that the CDC has plenty of funding, but the Obama administration has steered funds toward purposes other than fighting infectious diseases.

The CDC’s budget suggests neither side has it quite right. Ebola falls under the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases branch, whose funding has grown more than $100 million from $281 million in 2010 to $390 million in 2014. And about $52 million of that boost is from Obamacare.

Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, leveled his own criticism at the budget cutters in an interview with HuffingtonPost.com, saying his agency “probably would have had a vaccine” developed by now if not for a 10-year slide in NIH funding.

SEE ALSO: Ebola nurse’s dog in Texas won’t be euthanized

Budget bottom line

But the NIH’s own statistics show that the division that handles infectious diseases has seen its funding jump from less than $1.8 billion in 2000 to $4.8 billion in 2010. Funding has dipped since then, to $4.4 billion in 2014.

For now, the government is rushing tens of millions of dollars out the door to address Ebola, from small purchase orders like $13,200 spent on a dozen tents by a U.S. aid agency, to seven-figure contracts with major pharmaceutical and research companies working on virus countermeasures.

The NIH recently added $8 million onto an existing contract with Crucell Holland, which in 2008 won a $30 million contract from the NIH in the fight against Ebola and the Marburg virus.

In August, NIH officials also announced plans to begin human testing on an experimental Ebola vaccine developed by the NIH and GlaxoSmithKline. Officials said they’d expedited testing because of the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

The White House signed off on a $20.4 million contract in early September with Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes the experimental drug ZMapp, which was used to treat two Americans infected with the disease while working in West Africa.

Those patients — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — were flown to the U.S. for treatment in a specially outfitted jet to prevent the virus from spreading. The Centers for Disease Control helped develop the technology and had the jet on call for years before letting the contract lapse.

But as Ebola spread briskly during the summer, the State Department secured the jet through a no-bid contract worth nearly $5 million awarded to a charter jet company in Georgia.

At the White House, President Obama tried to remain above the political debate. He met with his public health team and heard a report on the case of Ms. Pham.

The White House, in a statement, said Mr. Obama was briefed on “the apparent breach in infection control protocols at the Dallas hospital and remedial actions underway to mitigate similar breaches in the future.”

What exactly happened in Dallas, and the infection of the attending nurse, remain controversial.

The Texas hospital that had been treating Duncan confirmed that the nurse who contracted Ebola was Ms. Pham, according to WFAA, a Dallas television station.

Dr. Frieden said her diagnosis has sent investigators scrambling to track down not only the four dozen people who had been in contact with Duncan, but also all of the other health workers like Ms. Pham who came into contact with the late patient.

Texas officials did say they are searching for a home to shelter Ms. Pram’s dog — breaking with the precedent set by Spain, which euthanized the dog of a nurse diagnosed with Ebola there.

There are no reported cases of Ebola spreading through contact with a dog, but research suggests it could be possible.

Over the weekend, Dr. Frieden said he had faith in the protocols, and implied they must not have been strictly followed for the nurse to have become infected.

On Monday, he said he didn’t mean to imply Ms. Pham and her colleagues were at fault.

“The enemy here is a virus — Ebola. It’s not a person, it’s not a country, it’s not a place, it’s a virus,” the doctor said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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