The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is almost out of money to fight the Zika virus, the agency’s director said Tuesday — just hours before Florida announced three fresh homegrown cases of the infection.
Zika has now infected 46 people locally in Florida, presumably spread by mosquitoes. One case is part of an outbreak in Miami Beach and health officials say they’re trying to trace the origins of two others.
And the CDC, which has been helping Florida track cases and fight mosquitoes, is almost broke.
“Basically, we are out of money and we need Congress to act,” Frieden told reporters.
"The cupboard is bare.”
Last February, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika. Congress has resisted, with controlling Republicans saying they want more accountability for the money and saying health agencies like the CDC and National Institutes of Health need to find money left over from fighting Ebola and other projects.
Democrats turned down a Republican plan that would give the CDC and NIH some money but would take money away from Planned Parenthood.
Congress comes back from a seven-week summer break next Tuesday and agencies are lined up to demand quick action.
Related: Zika Damages Babies' Hearing
"What will happen at the end of September is the fiscal year ends,” Frieden said. There are no hints from the Republican-controlled House on how the federal budget will be renewed.
Frieden said the CDC did repurpose tens of millions of dollars. Of the $222 million allocated for Zika, $200 million is “already out the door,” Frieden said. “That money is already spoken for.” He said $197.3 million had actually been spent.
The CDC has spent a lot in Puerto Rico, where Zika has caused a full-blown epidemic.
Travelers have brought the virus to nearly all the U.S. states, and those where Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are common — 26 in all — risk outbreaks if any infected travelers get bitten.
Florida has had two outbreaks and two dozen other single cases. Texas and other Gulf states are highly vulnerable, as well. “It’s still the peak of mosquito season. It usually doesn’t end until the end of October,” Frieden said. “Unfortunately, we will see large numbers of infected infants in the coming weeks and months.”
The CDC’s trying to track every single pregnant woman with Zika. So far, it’s watching 584 in the U.S. states and another 812 in the territories, mostly Puerto Rico.
“Already, there have been 16 infants born in the continental U.S. with Zika. That number will increase,” Frieden said. “The numbers in Puerto Rico will likely be substantial.”
Related: Expect More Zika Cases, Experts Say
Most people don't get seriously ill from Zika but there is no doubt it causes severe birth defects — not just microcephaly, marked by a small and misshapen head, but major brain damage and effects on hearing, vision and limb development. It causes miscarriages and there's no way to fix the brain damage once it has happened.
The virus can be spread sexually, adding another layer of complications, and the mosquito that spreads it is extremely hard to eradicate.
Add to this a population uneasy about the use of insecticides, mosquito repellent and high-tech modified mosquitoes to fight the biting bugs, and you have a very complex battle. Frieden said the CDC needs money to develop better tests for the virus, to help the NIH work on a vaccine, to study babies born to women infected and to defend as much as possible against more importations of the virus.
“We are at the point where actions that are taken in the current time will have implications for decades to come," Frieden said.
"There are a lot of things that we cannot do for lack of resources.”
He said CDC is already borrowing from other vital programs.
"We have had to take money from areas including emergency preparedness in the United States, Ebola…immunization programs, HIV, monitoring disease,” he said. The CDC took $38 million from Ebola funding and $44 million from emergency response funding.
"We have sent well over $100 million to states, territories and tribal health departments," Frieden added.
Frieden said the CDC has giving Florida everything they asked for and needed. “But at this point, we don’t have any more resources to provide them,” he said.
“We’ve spent money of mosquito control, both in Puerto Rico and elsewhere.”
If Zika breaks out in Texas, say in October, the CDC may not be able to send in response teams or supplies, Frieden said. “We might not have the resources to do that."
"The speed of the clock ticking in Congress is not the same speed as a clock ticking with an epidemic.”