Tester: Congress dawdles as Zika virus advances

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Congress will be hard pressed to approve money for a Zika response by month’s end, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has been appointed to a committee tasked with ironing out differences between House and Senate proposals.

The virus, which has now infected 691 people in the United States and causes birth defects including microcephaly — babies born with small heads and small brains — hasn’t received the emergency response it’s deserved from the House and Senate, Tester said.

“There’s not a lot of urgency around here when it comes to Zika,” Tester told The Billings Gazette. “We’re well into mosquito season and we haven’t done anything. Two million pregnant women are at risk.”

The estimate of 2 million pregnant women at risk for the Zika comes from the Center For American Progress. The Centers of Disease Control knows of 206 women in the United States with laboratory evidence of Zika infection as of June 2. The virus is transmitted by mosquitos and through sex.

There is one case of travel-related Zika in Montana. Only eight states in the continental U.S., including Montana, don’t have at least one of the two types mosquitoes that can carry Zika, according to CDC. Those mosquitoes are now in the Southern United States.

Opinions are far apart in Congress over how much money should be spent fighting Zika, which first materialized in South America. The Obama administration has asked for $1.9 billion to fight Zika. The Senate approved $1.1 billion in emergency funding in May before its weeklong Memorial Day break. The House approved $622 million for Zika, mostly by taking money previously committed to Ebola virus research.

Tester said his objective on the conference committee to reconcile Zika funding differences between the Senate and House is to get the amount closer to the $1.1 billion approved by the Senate. If that means cutting the funds from existing programs as the House prefers, so be it, Tester said. The CDC and federal disease research agencies first requested money for Zika in February. Time is running out, he said.

“It needs to be reasonably robust because this is a serious threat,” Tester said. “Every one of those children born with microcephaly is $10 million bucks and that doesn’t include the heartache that happens.”

The Senate is in session 13 more days this month and eight days in July, before leaving for the entire month of August. The 2016 schedule is the shortest Senate schedule in 60 years, Tester said.

Earlier this month, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which conducts Zika research at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, told The Gazette it will run out of funding later this summer if Congress does nothing.