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Obama asks Congress for $1.8 billion to combat Zika virus

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(Bloomberg) — Public health officials said Monday that they don’t expect a major outbreak of the Zika virus in the U.S., and scientists are working on a vaccine that will be in safety trials later this year.

Seeking to head off the spread of the mosquito-borne virus that has been associated with birth defects in Latin America, President Barack Obama will ask Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus, the White House said Monday.

See also: Zika virus: What you need to know

“We don’t think there will be an explosive outbreak” in the U.S., Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told reporters at the White House on Monday. “We are clearly better prepared for an outbreak like Zika than we were, let’s say, a year or so ago.”

Thousands of pregnant women in South America, Central America and the Caribbean have been infected with the virus, which is being investigated as a potential cause of microcephaly, a birth defect in which children are born with abnormally small heads. More than 50 cases of the virus have been reported in the United States among people returning from travel to Zika-plagued regions.

“We have to take this very seriously,” Obama said during an interview with “CBS This Morning” that aired Monday. “We’re going to be putting up a legislative proposal to Congress to resource both the research on vaccines and diagnostics but also helping in terms of public health systems.”

The governor of Florida, Republican Rick Scott, last week declared a health emergency in several counties where cases of Zika were discovered.

Potential vaccine

The $1.8 billion would pay for scientific research on the virus, including work on a potential vaccine; mosquito eradication and enhanced testing capabilities in places at highest risk for Zika; and supporting prevention efforts in the most-affected countries.

Obama’s proposal would boost funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by $828 million, to better track the virus and create rapid-response teams to prevent clusters of Zika cases from developing in the United States, the White House said. About $200 million would go toward research on potential vaccines and diagnostic tests for the virus.

Fauci said U.S. scientists have begun developing a vaccine for the virus, and will begin human trials and seek regulatory approval “much more quickly” than the traditional timeline of three to five years.

“We can predict that we likely would be in phase one trials — just to determine if it’s safe and if it induces a good response — probably by the end of the summer,” he said.

Fauci said other mosquito-borne viruses, including dengue and chikungunya fever, have not spread widely in the U.S. despite recent outbreaks in the region. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC, said that U.S. living standards such as screened windows and widespread air conditioning, as well as relatively low population density in the southern United States, should mean the virus can’t spread as rapidly as in countries like Brazil.

Puerto Rico crisis

The president’s funding request also includes $250 million for Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. The Zika virus has exacerbated a financial crisis in the island territory, and migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. has been increasing in recent years. Republicans in Congress have previously rejected the idea of providing additional taxpayer funds to support Puerto Rico as it struggles to pay its debts and provide social services.

See also: Weakened Brazil contends with a new, deadly threat

It’s not clear how Republicans who control Congress will respond to Obama’s funding request. Republican leaders have said they won’t hold customary hearings after Obama releases his budget on Tuesday.

At a Republican presidential debate on Saturday, some candidates said they would consider quarantines if the disease began spreading rapidly in the U.S.

“We need rapid response for Zika,” Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon running for the presidency, said during the debate in Manchester, N.H. “These are the kinds of things that the NIH, the CDC, can be very effective in. We need to give the the appropriate support for those kind of things.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama discussed the Zika virus and a federal response during his meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week.

“We are hopeful that Congress would recognize the urgency on this request and act quickly on it,” Earnest said. “This sort of falls in the category of things that shouldn’t break down along party lines.”

See also:

Zika virus, birth defects are health emergency, WHO says

For those threatened by Zika, vaccines may not come soon enough

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