As I pointed out in an early article in this series (We were ready for Zika virus!), work on Zika virus today is being done in many laboratories, including ours, using grant money that was meant for other research programs. Will Congress realize that meaningful, sustained progress on this virus will not come about by taking money from other programs? Apparently not—just before adjourning for the summer, and on the eve of the first local spread of Zika virus in the US, Congress failed to pass legislation that would provide funds needed to respond to this health crisis.
During recording of the 400th episode of the science show This Week in Virology, I asked Nobel Laureate and former NIH Director Harold Varmus his thoughts on the lack of support for Zika virus research:
Vincent: We just went through a phase where Congress refused to appropriate additional money for Zika virus research. Do you have any insight as to why, when you clearly have an important spreading global pathogen, they would choose not to do that?
Harold: This is complicated for a few reasons. One is that there is partisan hostility at a level I have never seen before at the moment between Congress and the administration. And many of the people who are criticizing the allocation for Zika, they would say it’s important for the government to support Zika virus research, but they say you have asked for too much money, although it’s hard to know what the right amount is. They know that when the influenza money was allocated at the time of the 2009 influenza epidemic (we are still sticking with viruses), that not all the money was used. Some of that money was left; I think it’s good to have it in the treasury as a way to respond to the next flu outbreak, which we know will happen. So there was a suspicion of that. And then an effort was made to highlight certain other issues by attaching it, so the Zika bill was not a clean bill. And that led to [the bill being blocked].
That’s a big problem, and we ought to have an emergency medical fund that’s well endowed, several billion dollars, where the President and members of the National Security Council and other people are in charge of responding. We are a rich enough country, and we are so important to the health of the world, not just our own citizens, that we—that is, the President and designated advisors—should have a key to that fund and be able to respond, provided that we are not doing the Zika research. We know we can control Zika. It’s going to happen. And it’s not as complicated as HIV, not as complicated as cancer, not as complicated as flu. We can do this. I see Tony Fauci, one of my heroes, out there saying, "I need this much to get this job done;" I mean, who is going to argue against Tony Fauci? And nobody should. And we ought to just give him the key to the funds and have a fund for him to pay from.
Our ability to control infectious diseases should not be governed by political processes. Congress says we need to spend billions of dollars on the military to protect us from those who would harm us. Well guess what, Congress: we also need to spend money to protect us from infectious diseases! Does it make sense that the NIH budget (about $31 billion) is so much smaller than the US military budget (over $600 billion)? Zika virus won’t be the last emerging virus, and we need to be financially ready for the others—catch up after the fact is not the most efficient way to control these infections.