The World Health Organization said Monday it wants to fast-track a better test for the Zika virus as dozens of countries cope with yet another scary pandemic, saying doctors on the front lines should at least be able to single out the disease from similar infections in hard-hit Latin America.
Its emergency committee asked companies to submit their diagnostic ideas so they can deploy kits to Brazil and 25 other countries afflicted by Zika, which typically causes mild illness but has been linked to a sharp uptick in the number of children born with abnormally small heads — a condition called microcephaly.
With the first case of sexual transmission confirmed in the U.S. last week, the White House announced Monday that President Obama will request $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika at home and abroad, saying the virus’ threat requires a double-barreled approach that blitzes mosquito populations while chasing a vaccine.
His plan earmarks $200 million for a potential antidote and more reliable diagnostics for Zika. Current tests detect antibodies for Zika that “cross-react” with related viruses such as dengue, meaning the results aren’t definitive, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
“We need to get a very specific diagnostic to tell a woman, particularly who is pregnant, have you been infected with Zika or not,” he said. “That’s going to be very important, and we’re working very closely on that.”
Zika is a little-known virus that festered for decades in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region before globe-hopping to Latin America, where it has spread to more than 20 countries.
A half-million infections have been reported in Brazil since the outbreak began in spring of last year, with a single northeast state — Bahia — accounting for 56,000 cases between April and October alone, the WHO said.
“Due to the magnitude of the outbreak, Brazil ceased counting cases of Zika virus,” the WHO said in its first situation report since deeming Zika a public health emergency.
Colombia is second, with more than 20,000 cases reported through late January.
While Zika isn’t actively transmitting in the U.S., travelers have brought the virus back with them, and there has been a documented case of sexual transmission in Texas. And as temperatures rise in the summer, the U.S. will be at greater risk of transmission from mosquitoes — particularly in the Southern states.
For now, the U.S. is advising pregnant women to defer visits to the affected countries, or to at least take precautions against mosquito bites if they must travel.
“We’re not canceling spring break. We’re telling people who are pregnant, ‘You know, you may not want to go,’” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC last week cautioned that pregnant women whose male partners have visited Zika-affected areas should either use condoms or abstain from sex until their pregnancy is done.
The Obama administration said it doesn’t want to divert funding from the lingering fight against Ebola, so it will need new funds from Congress for the Zika fight.
Mr. Obama’s proposal to inject nearly $1.5 billion into the Department of Health and Human Services would, among other things, help the CDC monitor and track suspected cases of Zika in the U.S.
It would also study the suspected link between Zika and both microcephaly and Guillain-Barre — a syndrome that can cause temporary paralysis — while promoting the race for a vaccine.
The WHO said Monday that “at least 12 groups” are working on a potential vaccine. Though a fully licensed vaccine could take a few years, research on similar “flaviviruses” such as dengue and yellow fever will serve as a springboard for the effort.
Mr. Obama wants $250 million for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program to help pregnant women and others affected by active transmission of Zika on the U.S. territory. The island is steeped in a financial crisis, and it needs Congress to loosen caps on its Medicaid program so it can respond to emergent threats, according to the White House.
The administration also requested $335 million to support the U.S. Agency for International Development’s efforts abroad and $41 million for the State Department to support U.S. citizens in affected countries.
Leading Democrats swiftly backed the administration and piggybacked on the proposal to request relief funding for families afflicted by the “man-made” water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he is committed to the Zika fight but needs to hear more at a Tuesday briefing from administration officials.
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Committee on Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, said the panel “will carefully review the request once it is received.”
At least one House Republican — Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida — said he supports emergency funding to fight Zika.
“We need to get ahead of this emerging threat,” said Mr. Buchanan, whose home state is particularly susceptible to mosquito populations that seek out warm climes.
The American Public Health Association also backed the request, saying “new threats require new investments.”