April 13, 2016 / 9:09 PM / 4 years ago

Republican, signaling a shift, says more money needed for Zika fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior U.S. House of Representatives Republican Tom Cole said on Wednesday more funds will be needed to fight the Zika virus in the United States, signaling a shift from insistence by many Republicans that the Obama administration should use existing funds for the effort to combat the growing threat.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen at the Laboratory of Entomology and Ecology of the Dengue Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in San Juan, in this March 6, 2016, file photo. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/Files

The Zika outbreak began last year in Brazil and has spread rapidly through the Americas. U.S. officials say local outbreaks are possible in the United States, particularly in southern states like Florida and Texas where the mosquitoes that carry the virus are active.

Democrats and Obama administration officials have been urging the Republican-controlled Congress to grant nearly $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the virus. In a temporary fix, the White House said last week that it would redirect $589 million in allocated funds to prepare for Zika’s arrival in the continental United States.

Representative Cole, who chairs the health appropriations subcommittee, said the funds should last until the end of the government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“There’s going to need to be additional money, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Cole told reporters after a House Republican meeting. “We’re having discussions about that now.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is from Florida, broke with other congressional Republicans on Zika last week, announcing his support for President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion request to fight the virus.

On Wednesday, Rubio wrote to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to urge it to clear a backlog of Zika diagnostic tests and prioritize testing for pregnant women, saying he had seen media reports that some pregnant women have waited up to a month for CDC to complete their tests.

The White House on Wednesday said a bill that passed on Tuesday was a positive first step in combating Zika but lamented its lack of additional funds needed to fight the virus, which has been linked to a rare birth defect in babies called microcephaly and neurological disorders in adults.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he anticipated that President Barack Obama would sign the bill, which provides financial incentives to companies developing treatments for Zika.

Cole said lawmakers have not decided whether any new money to fight Zika would be provided in an appropriations bill, or attached to a “continuing resolution” keeping the government open at current spending levels, if lawmakers end up passing such a measure later this year.

“I think the problem is real, certainly there will need to be additional money at the NIH on this,” Cole said, referring to the National Institutes of Health.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said, however, that if more money is needed to fight Zika, lawmakers will address the matter through the regular appropriations process.

“We will address the situation through the regular appropriations process as the need arises, and our appropriators are looking at how to do just that,” Ryan said at a press conference.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bernard Orr

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