The Senate voted last week to advance $1.1 billion in emergency funding to help fight the spread of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that is particularly harmful to pregnant women.
The sum, which will likely be used for vaccine development and mosquito control, comes short of the $1.9 billion originally requested by the White House. Critics say the $1.1 billion may not be enough to control the virus from spreading.
At this point in time, several hundred cases of Zika have been identified in the United States, many of whom are pregnant women. The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a congenital condition causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
We discussed how the federal funding will be used to control Zika virus with Princeton University's Adel Mahmoud, lecturer with the rank of professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and retired president of Merck Vaccines. Mahmoud also commented on the Zika virus for WWS Reacts in February 2016.
Q. How concerned should we be regarding Zika? Where do things stand today?
Mahmoud: We should take into consideration that Zika virus is transmitted through insect bites and transmitted sexually. The risk and potential for the transmission of Zika virus to people in this country is very real given that the mosquito that carries the virus – the Aedes aegypti – can be found in the eastern third of the United States. This geographic data is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others are looking at as they assess threat.
Q. How will the $1.1 billion in emergency financing help, and will it be enough?
Mahmoud: Funding is crucial and urgent to accelerate response elements against Zika virus. While the $1.1 billion may help initiate a multidimensional attack on the challenge, it is not enough. Alas, the funding for the potential outbreak has become mired in the country’s very partisan national politics. A more logical response to the continuing challenge of emerging infections is needed.
Q. What is the first priority – vaccine development, mosquito control, or something else?
Mahmoud: Since we have a modest basis of information on the emergence of Zika virus, a multidimensional approach is needed at this point. Accelerating our basic understanding of the disease associations of the virus infection, developing vaccines and antivirals and approaching vector (insect) control in innovative and effective ways are the fundamental elements of a response. There also needs to be personal protection and public health measures to reduce human exposure to insect bites and thereby reduce exposure.
Q. Unlike the Ebola crisis, it seems like we’re tackling this epidemic more promptly. Do you agree? If so, how will this make a difference?
Mahmoud: There are differences between Ebola and Zika from biological and epidemiological points of view. But both are vivid examples of emergence, a phenomenon where a microbe appears seemingly out of nowhere. Emergence - whether it's a new infection or a reemerging infection - is a stark reminder that humans and microbes are co-inhabitants of this globe and are in a continuous interplay that sometimes results in outbreaks. We were not ready for Ebola, and we are not ready for Zika, nor are we ready for the potential of emergence of any infection at any time.
Q. Your work has cited the need for a vaccine development fund to combat epidemics like these. Do you think we’re any closer to that being a reality?
Mahmoud: The ever-continuing challenge of emergence and reemergence of infectious diseases indicates the urgent need to be ready prior to the event. One approach we advocated during the height of the Ebola outbreak is the necessity of having “a global vaccine development fund,” which can address the challenges of not being ready when an emergence event occurs. This fund is needed now more than ever.
WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.