The Senate has passed a $1.1 billion package and the House approved $622 million. Obama wants more than three times the House figure, $1.9 billion, to fight the virus that causes a serious birth defect.
“We didn’t just choose the $1.9 billion from the top of our heads,” Obama said. “This was based on public-health assessments of all the work that needs to be done. And to the extent that we want to be able to feel safe and secure, and families who are of childbearing years want to feel as if they can have confidence that when they travel, when they want to start a family that this is not an issue — to the extent that that’s something that we think is important, then this is a pretty modest investment for us to get those assurances.”
Obama said the House package is not only inadequate, “That money is taken from the fund that we’re currently using to continue to monitor and fight against Ebola. So, effectively, there’s no new money there. All that the House has done is said, you can rob Peter to pay Paul. And given that I have, at least, pretty vivid memories of how concerned people were about Ebola, the notion that we would stop monitoring as effectively and dealing with Ebola in order to deal with Zika doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The president added, “This is something that is solvable. It is not something that we have to panic about, but it is something we have to take seriously. And if we make a modest investment on the front end, then this is going to be a problem that we don’t have to deal with on the back end.” He said each child who has a small brain as a result of Zika “may end up costing up to $10 million over the lifetime of that child in terms of that family providing that child the support that they need. . . . It doesn’t take a lot of cases for you to get to $1.9 billion. Why wouldn’t we want to make that investment now?”
Part of the money would go to develop a vaccine for Zika, and part of that work is going on at the University of Kentucky. “You don’t get a vaccine overnight,” Obama said. “You have to test it to make sure that any potential vaccine is safe. Then you have to test to make sure that it’s effective. You have to conduct trials where you’re testing it on a large enough bunch of people that you can make scientific determinations that it’s effective. So we’ve got to get moving.”
Obama said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are “taking pots of money from other things — universal flu funds or Ebola funds or other funds — just to get the thing rolling. But we have to reimburse those pots of money that have already been depleted and we have to be able to sustain the work that’s going to need to be done to finish the job. So, bottom line is, Congress . . . needs to get me a bill that has sufficient funds to do the job.”
The president said that should happen before the summer congressional recess in August, “to provide confidence to the American people that we’re handling this piece of business.” He said the money would be insurance for young families or couples thinking about having children.
“To the extent that we’re not handling this thing on the front end, we’re going to have bigger problems on the back end,” Obama said. “Tell your members of Congress, get on the job on this. This is something we can handle. We should have confidence in our ability to take care of it. We’ve got outstanding scientists and researchers who are in the process of getting this done, but they’ve got to have the support from the public in order for us to accomplish our goal.”