By Roberta Rampton & Ben Hirschler
WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – Barack Obama will ask the U.S. Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika at home & abroad & pursue a vaccine, the White House said on Monday, yet the president moreover said there is no reason to panic over the mosquito-borne virus.
Zika, spreading rapidly in South & Central America & the Caribbean, has been linked to severe birth defects in Brazil & public health officials' concern is focused on pregnant women & woman who may become pregnant.
Obama's request to Congress includes $200 million for research, development & commercialization of new vaccines & diagnostic tests for the virus.
In addition, the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA), Europe's drugs regulator, said it has formed an expert task force on Zika to advise companies working on vaccines & medicines against the virus.
There are no vaccines or treatment for Zika & none even undergoing clinical studies, as the disease had previously been viewed as relatively benign. Most infected people develop either no symptoms or mild ones like a fever & skin rashes.
"The satisfactory news is this is not like Ebola, people don't die of Zika. A lot of people obtain it & don't even know that they have it," Obama told CBS News in an interview aired on Monday. "But there shouldn't be panic on this, this is not something where people are going to die from it. It is something we have to take seriously."
Scientists are working to find out if there is a causal link between Zika & babies born with microcephaly, meaning they have abnormally small heads & can suffer developmental problems. The research began after a huge rise in such birth defects last year in Brazil at the same time the virus took hold there.
Most of the money sought by Obama, who faces pressure from Republicans & some fellow Democrats to act decisively on Zika, would be spent in the United States on testing, surveillance & response in affected areas.
A technician from Oxitec inspects larvae of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Campinas, Brazil, February 2 …
"As spring & summer approach, bringing with them larger & more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate & quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the Southern United States," the White House said in a statement.
Obama's funding request to Congress moreover includes $335 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development to support mosquito-control, maternal health & other Zika-related public health efforts in affected countries in the Americas.
There have been 50 confirmed cases of Zika in the continental United States among people who had traveled to affected areas, according to federal health officials.
The White House said it would ask for $250 million for Puerto Rico, the fiscally struggling Caribbean U.S. territory. Zika is actively being transmitted in Puerto Rico & other warmer territories.
Brazil, the country hardest hit by Zika, estimates that up to 1.5 million people have been infected in the country. Brazil is investigating more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly. The World Health Organization has said a causal link between Zika & microcephaly is strongly suspected.
Word that Zika can be spread by sexual transmission & blood transfusions & its discovery in saliva & urine of infected people have added to concern over the virus.
Several biotech & pharmaceutical companies are racing to develop a Zika vaccine, including France's Sanofi, which already has vaccine for the similar condition of dengue.
But scientists know relatively little approximately Zika & the road to developing a preventative shot is strewn with hurdles.
Brazil is grappling with the virus even as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, with tens of thousands of athletes & tourists anticipated.
The U.S. Olympic Committee has told U.S. sports federations that athletes & staff concerned approximately their health due to Zika should consider not going to the Olympics.
The message was delivered in a conference call involving USOC officials & leaders of U.S. sports federations in late January. The federations were told that no one should go to Brazil "if they don't feel comfortable going," said Donald Anthony, president & board chairman of USA Fencing.
"One of the things that they immediately said was, especially for women that may be pregnant or even thinking of getting pregnant, that whether you are scheduled to go to Rio or no, that you shouldn't go," said Anthony, a former Olympian.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has advised pregnant women to avoid travel to areas with an active outbreak of Zika. The WHO last week declared an international emergency over the disease, estimating that up to 4 million people may become infected in the Americas.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Megan Cassella & Roberta Rampton in Washington; Ben Hirschler in London, Daniel Bases & Joshua Schneyer in New York, Anthony Esposito & Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)
HealthDisease & Medical ConditionsBarack ObamaWhite HouseZikaBrazil