WASHINGTON — Public health officials said Monday they’ve learned a lot more about Zika since the White House asked Congress for $1.9 billion to combat the mosquito-borne virus and are increasingly concerned about its potential impact on the United States.
“Most of what we’ve learned is not reassuring,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”
She said the virus has been linked to a broader array of birth defects throughout a longer period of pregnancy, including premature birth and blindness in addition to the smaller brain size caused by microcephaly. The potential geographic range of the mosquitoes transmitting the virus also reaches farther northward, with the Aedes aegypti species present in all or part of 30 states, not just 12. And it can be spread sexually, causing the CDC to update its guidance to couples.
And researchers still don’t know how many babies of women infected with Zika will end up with birth defects, or what drugs and vaccines may be effective.
“This is a very unusual virus that we can’t pretend to know everything about it that we need to know,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m not an alarmist and most of you who know me know that I am not, but the more we learn about the neurological aspects, the more we look around and say this is very serious.”
The assessment, delivered to reporters at the White House on Monday, comes the week after the White House informed Congress it was moving more than $510 million previously earmarked for Ebola prevention toward Zika prevention efforts.
“We can’t just stop and wait for the money. If we don’t get the money the president has asked for, we’re not going to take it to the point we need,” Fauci said. “When the president asked for $1.9 billion, we needed $1.9 billion.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the newest warning “hopefully serves as motivation for members of Congress to pay attention to this important topic.”
But congressional Republicans accused the White House of trying to “politicize” Zika. “We’re glad the administration has agreed to our request to use existing Ebola funds to address the Zika epidemic,” said Doug Andes, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “If additional Zika resources are needed those funds could and should be addressed through the regular appropriations process.”
The Centers for Disease Control announced Monday it was providing $3.9 million in emergency Zika funding to Puerto Rico. saying the number of cases there is doubling every week and could reach into the hundreds of thousands. The money will go to increased laboratory capacity.
“We are quite concerned about Puerto Rico, where the virus is spreading throughout the island,” Schuchat said. “We think there could be hundreds of thousands of cases of Zika virus in Puerto Rico and perhaps hundreds of affected babies.”