Federal health officials are wasting no time in putting to use long-awaited congressional funding aimed at strengthening Zika prevention and advancing research efforts.

The country’s health care agencies will split the $1.1 billion in funding approved by Congress on Sept. 28, dividing the money among Zika vaccine development, mosquito control, and response to virus outbreaks in the United States and globally, Sylvia Burwell, Health and Human Services secretary, said during an Oct. 3 press conference.

President Obama signed law H.R. 5325 , the Zika Response and Preparedness Act, into law on Sept. 29. The approval caps months of wrangling within Congress about what to include in the measure and several failed attempts to pass similar bills.

“At HHS, we’ll put this funding to use quickly and wisely,” Secretary Burwell said during the press conference. “It will support essential strategies to combat this virus, like expanding mosquito surveillance and control programs. It will also help us further accelerate the development of tests to detect Zika treatment and vaccines, including beginning human testing of additional vaccine candidates. It will also fund vital research as we continue to learn about the virus and monitor the progress of babies born with Zika-related birth defects.”

Of the $1.1 billion included in the final package to fight Zika, $15 million will go to the state of Florida and $60 million to the territory of Puerto Rico to respond to Zika outbreaks in those areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will receive $394 million, of which $44 million will go toward replenishing funds pulled from the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) cooperative agreement to address the Zika crisis, said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD . The CDC’s remaining $350 million will allow the agency to extend existing responses to Zika outbreaks and grow partnerships with state and local authorities.

“It will also allow us to extend or start new activities, including more intensive studies to understand Zika’s impact on pregnancy, and what happens in the long term both to infants with microcephaly and other birth defects, and what happens to infants who are born with normal head sizes,” Dr. Frieden said during the press conference. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about the long-term problems caused by Zika congenital syndrome.”

The National Institutes of Health will use its portion of the Zika funding – $152 million – to further vaccine development and move forward clinical trials already in the works, said Anthony Fauci, MD , director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The NIH is well on its way with a phase I vaccine trial, having enrolled 80 patients thus far, Dr. Fauci said during the press call. The agency will soon have enough information to determine to move onto phase II, he said.

“What we can now do with the $152 million, most of which will be devoted to vaccine development, we’ll be able to proceed in a smooth transition fashion with that phase II trial, as well as begin both the preclinical and early clinical development of several of the other candidates,” Dr. Fauci said during the press conference.

Meanwhile, HHS will use its portion of the funding – $245 million – to support advanced vaccine development and ensure the drug manufacturing process runs smoothly and quickly, said Nicole Lurie, MD , HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response. Agency officials also plan to support more clinical trials that will be integrated with the ongoing NIH trials, she said.

The remaining funds from the bill will go toward global health programs, operating costs, and other expenses.

Despite the positives from the supplemental funding, Secretary Burwell noted that Congress’ delay in approving the extra money has caused irreparable harm to other health care programs and initiatives. HHS diverted funds from other departments, such as the Administration for Children and Families and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to address Zika outbreaks and begin research. Vaccine and diagnostic developments are also behind because of funding delays, according to officials.

“The damage that occurred because we took those funds will continue,” Secretary Burwell said. “The time and energy that was spent in seeking and working to get the funding instead of working to use the funding [was detrimental]. That money would be out the door if we were in a situation where we had received that money at the point at which we had asked for it.”

agallegos@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @legal_med

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