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White House criticizes Congress for inaction on Zika money

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(Bloomberg) — The White House announced Tuesday it will shift $589 million in government spending to combat the Zika virus, and warned Congress that it would regret ignoring the Obama administration’s request for $1.9 billion to increase research and defenses against the disease.

“Congress has completely abdicated their responsibility to follow through on a proposal the administration put forward based on the advice of scientific experts,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at a briefing Tuesday.

See also: Warm summer may spread Zika to NYC, Los Angeles, study says

Administration officials said they would shift $510 million in unused funds from the campaign against the Ebola virus and $79 million from other accounts to Zika, which has been confirmed to have infected 64 women in the United States who are pregnant. The virus is believed to cause a microcephaly, a birth defect. But the White House warned it doesn’t have enough money to fully combat the mosquito-borne virus.

Government officials said on a conference call with reporters that they expect “local transmission” of the virus in the southern U.S. by this summer. The birth of a Hawaii child with microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head, has been confirmed to be connected to Zika infection in its mother, the officials said.

Mosquito-control programs

The reprogrammed money isn’t enough to fund scientific work on vaccines for the virus or expand mosquito-control programs, the White House said. More money would also help local health agencies prepare for the virus, the administration said.

“There’s no reason that Democrats and Republicans should disagree about the need to protect the American public,” Earnest said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who chairs the subcommittee that controls funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said Tuesday he was still studying if more funds were needed.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who oversees State Department funding, said the administration told him the re-programmed $589 million “ought to cover it.”

In the House, Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky and two other top Republican appropriators said they “will look carefully at the details of today’s proposal by the administration to ensure the best and most effective use of these funds” and “to monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis.”

The Obama administration’s move comes as Liberia’s health ministry announced a second case of Ebola, heightening fears that the deadly virus could re-emerge in West Africa. Administration officials say the Ebola money they will shift to Zika would have paid for health infrastructure improvements in Africa to help prevent Ebola outbreaks.

—With assistance from Erik Wasson and Billy House. 

See also:

Obama asks Congress for $1.8 billion to combat Zika virus

Zika virus: What you need to know


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