- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2016

The White House budget chief told Congress Monday that President Obama would like to free up some, but not all, of the leftover money from the Ebola fight to combat the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects in Latin America.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, told the Office of Management Budget last week that about $2.7 billion of the $5.3 billion Congress set aside to combat Ebola hadn’t been used, so the administration should look to that money before asking for nearly $2 billion more to fight Zika, the latest global health scare.

OMB Director Shaun Donovan appeared ready to meet the chairman halfway Monday, saying Mr. Obama’s $1.9 billion request — formally submitted Monday — asks Congress to free up Ebola funding set aside for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

“While the Zika supplemental request reflects our best estimate given current information of potential needs to address Zika there remains significant uncertainty around the scope of the Zika challenges we will face. … Being able to use unplanned State/USAID Ebola funds will give us the flexibility to respond to Zika needs beyond what we have so far identified,” he said in a letter to Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers’ figures last week put that amount at about $1.3 billion. However, the committee said $1.4 billion to the Health and Human Services Department also hasn’t been used, so there is still disagreement between the parties.

In his letter, Mr. Donovan said the “magnitude of the Zika outbreak primarily requires new resources to ensure it is adequately addressed.”

“My foremost priority is to protect the health and safety of Americans,” Mr. Obama said in a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican. “This request supports the necessary steps to fortify our domestic health system, detect and respond to any potential Zika outbreaks at home, and to limit the spread in other countries.”

The administration says efforts to stamp out Ebola aren’t complete and will take awhile, as hard-hit countries rebuild their infrastructure and scientists pursue a vaccine against the virus, which killed 11,000 in West Africa from December 2013 to late 2015.

“We must remain vigilant and continue to direct resources toward Ebola until we are sure that Ebola will not resurge in West Africa,” he wrote.

The emerging Zika threat is causing alarm across Latin America, where researchers have said the virus’ spread coincides with an uptick in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads — a condition known as microcephaly.

As it stands, labs have confirmed 84 cases of Zika within the continental U.S. because travelers brought the virus back with them. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa are reporting local transmission.

“Our response to this disease must be immediate, and emergency funding is the most expedient manner to deploy critical resources to respond to Zika virus both domestically and internationally, while continuing our efforts to respond to Ebola,” Mr. Donovan wrote.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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