CDC Will Soon Have 1 Million Zika Virus Tests Available

Alicia Ault

February 25, 2016

With an expected rise in US cases of traveller-related Zika virus infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ramped up production of diagnostics and will have 1 million polymerase chain reaction test kits available by early March, according to CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD.

Those tests determine whether someone was recently infected. In addition, the agency will have 100,000 Zika virus immunoglobulin M (IgM) tests to use after more time has elapsed since exposure, Dr Schuchat told Medscape Medical News.

"There were some innovations in CDC's laboratory that allowed that scale-up," Dr Schuchat told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Schuchat was on Capitol Hill on February 24 testifying before a Senate committee in the morning and a House committee in the afternoon about the federal government's response to the Zika epidemic.

She told Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets, that the CDC was on the way to having 90,000 tests available. But in an interview with Medscape Medical News — after checking in with agency scientists — she revised the estimate.

The diagnostics will be conducted at state, and sometimes local, health departments or at the CDC. The agency is also "in dialogue with commercial companies to see if they can pick up some of that volume," she said.

The CDC understands that physicians and patients are anxious, Dr Schuchat said. "One of the reasons we wanted to get testing out there is the vast majority of people get a negative result," she told Medscape Medical News. "That information can be very helpful." She acknowledged that "finding out you are IgM positive doesn't really help you because you don't know what that means."

The agency is also "working around the clock" to manufacture more tests and increase the evidence base about Zika, Dr Schuchat said. "I would expect in the weeks ahead there will be many more reports about what we're learning."

But she acknowledged that "it's pretty tough right now" for physicians and patients. With many pregnancies each year, "we want to help those women, and we want to help the doctors," Dr Schuchat said.

CDC, NIH Questioned About Need for More Funds

Earlier in February, President Obama said he would request $1.8 billion in emergency appropriations for the Zika response. But on February 18, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger, and Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole said they would reject the request and instead urged the Administration to use some $1.3 billion in unused Ebola money.

"If an urgent response is what is required, then it seems clear that substantial funds are already available without any further delay," the congressmen wrote in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Despite that warning, President Obama went ahead and sent a formal request for $1.9 billion to the Speaker of the House on February 22.

At the February 24 hearing, Rep. Mica pressed Dr Schuchat and Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), on whether the agencies could potentially use the Ebola funds to fight Zika.

"Our Ebola resources are committed," said Dr Schuchat, who said that just because the virus was out of the headlines did not mean that the agency could drop its surveillance.

As for the Ebola funds designated for NIAID, "we've essentially spent all of it except for maybe $9 million," said Dr Fauci. The agency has tried moving some money around — for instance, by asking contractors working on flaviviruses in general to focus specifically only on Zika, he said. But he added that new funding is needed to support vaccine development.

In contrast to the drubbing that federal health agencies took during the Ebola crisis, congressional hearings on Zika have been fairly noncontroversial. Rep. Mica's questioning — even about the funding issues ― was generally mild, and at the end of the hearing, he told the officials that they had "done a great job in staying ahead" of Zika. "I'm very pleased with where we are," he said.

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