HHS Officials: Important Progress on Zika, but Much Work Ahead

Megan Brooks

October 03, 2016

With $1.1 billion in supplemental funding for Zika now in hand, senior officials from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today gave a progress report on Zika virus response.

Zika is an "unpredicted and unpredictable health threat. We learn more about Zika every day, and the more we learn, the more concerned we are," Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), said during a media briefing.

As of September 28, more than 25,000 cases of Zika infection have been reported in the United States and its territories, including 3600 in the 50 states, HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell reported. In the United States and US territories, 2300 pregnant women have been infected with Zika, and as of last week, "tragically," 22 infants have been born with defects and have tested positive for Zika, she said.

In Florida, there have been no new cases in the Wynwood area, the first area that saw spread of the virus within the continental United States, Dr Frieden reported. "Within Miami Beach, we are still in the active transmission period and working closely on mosquito control there. In Puerto Rico, there continues to be extensive active transmission," he said.

Important Progress, but Behind the Eight Ball?

In February, President Barack Obama asked Congress for roughly $1.8 billion to fight Zika. It took until just last week for Congress to act, approving $1.1 billion for Zika.

"In February, we recognized that we would require new resources to confront the threat of Zika, and HHS requested emergency funding, but didn't wait for the legislation. At HHS, we have aggressively worked on Zika, and to keep these efforts going, we redirected and transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from other vital priorities to fund vector control and vaccine and diagnostics research and development," Burwell said.

"We've made important progress since we began the fight, and thanks to the $1.1 billion in needed funding that Congress just approved, we can build on this progress and continue the work," added Nicole Lurie, MD, HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

HHS is partnering across the federal government and with private industry to develop better tests to accurately and rapidly diagnose Zika infection. And efforts are underway on the vaccine front.

"Importantly and for practical purposes for long-term control of Zika outbreaks such as we are experiencing, [the key] is in vaccine development," said Anthony Fauci, MD, director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

There are at least five vaccine candidates that are "staggered" in their development in that some are already in clinical trial and some are lined up after variable periods following preclinical work to go into clinical trial, Dr Fauci said. The most advanced one is the DNA vaccine that entered phase 1 testing in early August.

Despite the progress, Dr Lurie said, with the delay in supplemental funding for Zika, "we are behind where we should be on vaccine development and on diagnostic test development. We had manufacturers walk away from negotiations with us because they weren't sure that the money was going to be there, so we likely missed out on some other promising vaccine candidates."

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