The Obama administration is diverting $81 million from biomedical research and anti-poverty and health-care programs so that work on a Zika vaccine can continue because Congress had failed to approve new funding to combat the virus.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Thursday said it was shifting $81 million from biomedical research and anti-poverty and health-care programs to pay for the development of a Zika vaccine, resorting to extraordinary measures because Congress had failed to approve new funding to combat the virus.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the secretary of health and human services, told members of Congress in a letter that without the diverted funds, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority would run out of money to confront the mosquito-borne illness by the end of the month.
That would force the development of a vaccine to stop at a critical time, as locally acquired cases of Zika infection increase in Miami.
Government scientists have identified the most promising Zika vaccine and have started human trials, but the congressional impasse has forced them to borrow money intended for crucial work on cancer, diabetes, Ebola and other deadly diseases.
In a speech attended by other top Zika experts Thursday in Washington, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, trod a thin line between describing progress in the Zika fight and pleading for emergency funding.
“We are right now in a race against time to get the best vaccine,” Fauci said.
The first person was injected Aug. 3 with the vaccine, which uses a piece of DNA called a plasmid that is engineered to produce Zika proteins that prompt the body to launch an immune response. The vaccine cannot cause someone to become infected with Zika.
The continental United States has 1,962 cases of Zika, and there are 6,618 more cases in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories, according to the CDC. Burwell said 15 infants had been born with Zika-related birth defects. The virus can cause abnormal brain development and other serious defects in children born to infected mothers.
The local spread of the illness in the continental United States, with the first cases reported in late July, has raised the political stakes surrounding the federal government’s response.
Obama and congressional Republicans have been at odds for most of the year over Zika. In February, Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding. Republicans balked, demanding a more detailed accounting of where the money would go.
Lawmakers have feuded for months over how much money should be earmarked and how it should be spent. Last month, Democrats blocked consideration of a Republican measure that would have allocated $1.1 billion to fight Zika but included provisions that would have banned funding for Planned Parenthood to provide contraception related to the virus, which can be sexually transmitted.
The deadlock prompted the White House in April to shift $589 million in Ebola funding to the Zika effort, about two-thirds of it designated for domestic use. On Thursday, Burwell said that her department had used most of that money and that it would be gone by the end of August.
“The failure to pass a Zika emergency supplemental has forced the administration to choose between delaying critical vaccine development work and raiding other worthy government programs to temporarily avoid these delays,” Burwell wrote.
Democrats seized on the announcement to berate Republicans for failing to provide additional money for Zika. At a news conference, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader, called on House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to bring Congress back to advance such a measure.
“Every possible option is being exhausted, and now we’re going into the National Institutes of Health, which is supposed to be a priority,” Pelosi said.
Aides to Ryan said that shifting the funds was a long-overdue step the Obama administration had delayed to squeeze maximum political advantage out of the Zika issue.
Burwell said she would transfer to the Zika efforts $34 million in NIH funds that had been designated to find treatments for other diseases, including cancer and diabetes.
An additional $47 million will be transferred to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which supports the development of drugs and vaccines to respond to public-health emergencies. That money will come from a variety of accounts, including $19 million from a program that supplies heating-oil subsidies for low-income families and $4 million from substance-abuse programs such as those for opioid addiction.
Even then, Burwell said, the additional money will last only through next month, at which point agencies would have to “severely curtail many of their critical efforts” against Zika without action from Congress.
In the past four months, the CDC has spent $60 million to help states protect pregnant women, $25 million to strengthen their Zika preparedness and response plans, and $16 million to help them create data-collection systems to quickly detect microcephaly and other Zika-related syndromes.
Almost two-thirds of Americans are concerned about the virus spreading in the coming months, according to poll results released Thursday by Suffolk University in Boston.
Fauci singled out Puerto Rico and Florida as epicenters of the virus, which is carried mainly by the Aedes aegypti mosquito but also can be transmitted sexually from an infected partner.
“Florida has a semitropical climate,” he said. “Right now in August of 2016, they have a considerable case of travel-related cases, and they have the mosquitoes.” The Florida Health Department on Thursday identified three more cases of mosquito-borne Zika, all in Miami-Dade County, bringing the state’s total to 25.
The state also reported 21 new travel-related infections, with 17 in Broward County, two in Hernando County and one in Miami-Dade and Seminole counties.
Overall, Florida has 486 cases of Zika, more than any other state except New York. The two states each have some 1 million Puerto Rican residents.
Puerto Rico is facing a looming Zika epidemic with 6,475 cases, only 30 of which weren’t locally acquired, according to the CDC.