- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2016

Federal regulators have greenlighted the first human trial of a vaccine for Zika virus, a pair of pharmaceutical companies said Monday, though a fully approved shot against the mosquito-borne disease could still be more than a year away.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals and GeneOne Life Sciences said they have 40 healthy participants lined up for doses of its DNA-based vaccine, which produced robust antibodies against Zika during animal testing.

“We are proud to have attained the approval to initiate the first Zika vaccine study in human volunteers,” Inovio President and CEO J. Joseph Kim said, noting 58 countries were experiencing local transmission as of May. “The incidences of viral infection and medical conditions caused by the virus are expanding, not contracting.”

Multiple entities are pursuing a vaccine for Zika, which is causing birth defects in infants born to infected mothers in Latin America, though any product must go through a series of trials and regulatory approvals before it is widely distributed.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has said a finished vaccine might not be available until early 2018.

President Obama has requested $1.9 billion in emergency spending to speed the pursuit of a vaccine and better diagnostic test for Zika, while bolstering local mosquito control efforts.

Instead, congressional negotiators are reconciling a House plan that takes $622 million from the lingering fight against Ebola in West Africa and other health accounts to fight Zika with a Senate plan that posts $1.1 billion without paying for it with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

Negotiators appeared close to a deal on funding levels last week, but remain stuck on how — or even whether — to offset the money or tack the expense onto the deficit so that taxpayers foot the bill later on.

The administration told Congress to work faster Monday, saying local entities will need a fiscal boost to adequately defend against the disease.

“While federal, state and local leaders have been hard at work, congressional Republicans continue to drag their feet. This is a public health emergency, and Congress needs to stop playing politics with the health and safety of the American people,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

The Centers for Disease Control has recorded more than 750 travel-related cases of Zika in the 50 states and the District, a handful of them through sexual transmission, though experts say the virus could puncture the mainland further once summer ramps up.

Florida is particularly vulnerable to local transmission, because its hot and wet climate offers a hospitable environment to Aedes mosquitos that carry Zika.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, Florida Republican, said Congress will be abdicating its core responsibility to the American people — public safety — if it breaks for a weeklong recess Friday without authorizing funds to combat Zika.

“Today is the first day of summer, which means mosquito season is here, and that means the Zika virus is here,” Mr. Buchanan said. “People’s lives are at stake — the time for inaction is over.”

Mr. Buchanan and Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, both support Mr. Obama’s request for nearly $2 billion in emergency spending for Zika.

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

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