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Zika Virus Research Funding Halted by Partisan Gridlock

Associated Press

Approximately 25 people in Virginia have now contracted the Zika virus, yet Congress has yet to pass a bill to fund research on the disease.

The Virginians who contracted Zika got it while traveling abroad, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but health experts say that will change as the summer rolls on and mosquito season really heats up. Still, Congress is gridlocked over the amount of money to allocate, with Republicans only offering to spend about a third of what the White House and public health officials had requested. Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly says the tussle is perplexing.

“I really don’t understand my Republican colleagues. This is an opportunity to perhaps preempt a serious health crisis from occurring in the first place…and to miss that opportunity is to disserve the public and to put it at risk.”

The House passed bill allocates six hundred and twenty two million dollars, while the White House asked for one point nine billion dollars. Connolly says the virus is too dangerous to play politics with.

“It reminds me of the evolutionary path of West Nile virus. Here’s an exotic disease, heretofore unknown, and suddenly its endemic. And there’s no quest its going to spread this summer here and in other parts of the United States so what had been a tropic or subtropical disease is now in temperate zones.”

That’s why Connolly is dumbfounded that ZIka funding is locked in a partisan battle.

“All the warning lights are on. And to not respond, to me, is a dereliction of public duty.”

Republicans see it differently.

“They’re just wrong. I mean I understand people gotta do politics sometimes and that’s just the nature of the beast.”

That’s Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith. The Senate passed bill goes through next September – a full year longer than the House version. It also includes one point one billion dollars – about double what the House passed. But Griffith says the House is prepared to meet that in the future, but they’d rather spend the money through the regular spending process, and not as an emergency spending bill.

“The truth is that in the House we’ve authorized more money in the short term. We did not say we wouldn’t authorize longer-term money but in the short term we want to front-load it. So we’ve actually given more than what the president wants between now and the end of September.”

Griffith says their bill is better even though it only provides funding through September, which health professionals say hampers their ability to plan ahead. 

“I mean if anybody’s really standing in the way of getting progress done on this thing it’s the Senate and the President not acting on the House bill which gives a big shot of money fast. That’s what we need. We don’t need to be dilly-dallying around up here, getting into these partisan fights over this. We need to push that money forward.”

But Virginia Democrat Don Beyer says he’s frustrated Republicans are treating Zika like its another budget item, and not a fast spreading global disease.

“Oh, I don’t know what’s going on. It’s interesting, we went from zero to six billion dollars on Ebola and only lost, what, one or two Americans who actually caught the disease here, a couple more that brought it home. And yet the potential Zika impact is much larger. The number of pregnant women now that are Zika positive is significant.”

Health officials do warn against traveling to Latin America and the Caribbean if you’re pregnant or planning on having children soon. 

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