The chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begged Congress Wednesday to cough up funding to combat Zika virus, expressing clear frustration with a Florida Republican who accused the administration of failing to spend money it has wisely.
CDC Director Tom Frieden said he needs emergency funding to close close gaps in local mosquito control efforts, develop a vaccine for the mosquito-borne illness and track women who’ve been infected with Zika, which causes birth defects.
“We just don’t have enough money,” Dr. Frieden told a meeting of Florida’s congressional delegation in the basement of a House office building.
The CDC has recorded nearly 700 travel-related cases in the 50 states and D.C., including nearly a dozen through sexual transmission, though it expects Zika to circulate on its own this summer, when Aedes mosquitoes will flourish.
Florida is among the states at greatest risk of local transmission, because its hot and wet climate is hospitable to the disease-carrying insects.
President Obama shifted nearly $600 million, most of it from the Ebola fight in West Africa, to combat Zika in the near term, though he wants Congress to pony up $1.9 billion more to backfill that money and combat the latest health threat at home and abroad.
Instead, congressional negotiators are reconciling two plans that offer much less.
The Senate approved $1.1 billion in emergency funding that isn’t offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, while the House moved to take $622 million more from the lingering Ebola response and other health accounts to address the emerging threat.
Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Vern Buchanan, who hosted Wednesday’s panel, are among Florida Republicans who have urged Congress to approve Mr. Obama’s full request, though another GOP member, Rep. John Mica, accused the administration of failing to direct the millions it has to efforts that could do the most good, such as research.
“I can do that, and then we can stop following pregnant women,” Dr. Frieden said.
While Mr. Mica left the room, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked: “Do you have a money tree growing in the courtyard of the CDC?”
Dr. Frieden said he did not.
Republican leaders say the administration has enough money to deal with upfront costs, and that appropriators can free up more money to deal with next year.
“Mosquitoes don’t know when the fiscal year ends,” Dr. Frieden said, pressing for a multiyear commitment. “This is going to be around for a long time.”
The Zika outbreak in Brazil has been linked to an uptick in the rate of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, though scientists say the disease will probably cause an array of defects.
Mr. Rubio, who dropped out of the GOP presidential race in March, noted that four out of five people with Zika do not show symptoms, so it may already be swirling on the mainland.
“It may well be we don’t know about the first case,” Dr. Frieden confirmed.
T. Wayne Gayle, executive director of the Lee County Mosquito Control District in Florida, said teams stand ready to spray around locals with confirmed cases, though it takes personnel, pesticides and equipment.
“Do we have that?” Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat, asked.
“No, not statewide,” Mr. Gayle said.