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Price Remarks at Zika Roundtable

June 7, 2016
Price Remarks at Zika Roundtable

Good morning, and thank you all for being here today!  I particularly want to thank Dr. Holden and RTI International, our guests from the research community, and my staff, Nora Blalock, Asher Hildebrand, and Lawrence Kluttz, for convening this timely discussion of an important topic on very short notice.

Events like this remind me just how fortunate I am to be your representative in Congress.  The international-caliber expertise that resides in the Research Triangle, particularly in the areas of science and health care, is an asset to our state and nation that frequently informs my work in Washington.

We have three great opportunities before us today:

First, we have an opportunity to learn from some of our area’s leading Zika researchers about the work they are doing to understand this virus and design effective interventions to address it. 

Second, we have an opportunity to learn from senior officials about the government’s response to Zika and the resources that are – or should be – available to help confront it.

Finally, we have an opportunity to educate the public – in North Carolina and around the country – about the nature of this threat and the everyday steps that people can take to prepare for it.

Given the limited time we have to realize these opportunities, I’m going to keep my opening remarks very brief.  But I do want to say a word about the ongoing discussions in Washington about the federal government’s response to Zika, in which I have been involved as a member of the Appropriations Committee.

To be sure, there is a lot we still don’t know about the Zika virus–its causes, its epidemiology, its relationship to other conditions, the totality of its effects on patients.  But here’s what we do know:

We know that Zika carries with it the potential for serious negative public health consequences, including microcephaly, which leave newborns burdened with horrible lifelong physical and mental developmental defects and cost millions of dollars to treat.

We know that the CDC has warned us that the mosquitoes that carry this virus will reach as far north as Maine this summer, including the entire state of North Carolina, and that other countries and U.S. territories are already beginning to experience the impact of the crisis, with its full magnitude yet to come.

And we know that confronting this threat will require a major mobilization of resources—public and private; federal, state, and local; scientific, technical, and social—that cannot and should not be impeded by the partisan divides to which we have become accustomed in Washington.

And yet, more than three months since the Administration requested an emergency supplemental appropriation from Congress to fund Zika research, preparedness, and response efforts, that is exactly where we find ourselves.

There is little reason to sugar-coat it:  of all the emergencies and potential emergencies that Congress has been slow to address in recent months, from the Flint water crisis to the opioid epidemic, our inability to respond in a timely, serious, and sustained way to the Zika crisis is the least comprehensible.

I will not dwell on the reasons for this failure, for we are not here today to discuss congressional dysfunction, but I will let the facts speak for themselves: 

o   The Administration has requested a total of $1.9 billion in emergency funding, including more than $800 million for CDC, without requiring us to rescind spending elsewhere to pay for it.

o   Senate Republicans have approved a funding package of about $1.1 billion, including about $450 million for CDC.

o   House Republicans have approved just $622 million—a third of what the Administration requested—including just $170 million for CDC, less than 21 percent of the request.  They stress that this is only the FY2016 portion; but by the same token this creates great uncertainty as to the future availability of funds. The majority of this funding would be cut from ongoing efforts to fight Ebola and other diseases.

I believe that we can and must do better than this, and I am not alone in this view.  We cannot afford to wait until cases begin spreading across the continental United States to get our act together.  But if we are going to bridge a funding gap of this magnitude, Congress must hear loud and clear from the research and public health communities (who know the most about the crisis) and from the American people that any further delay is unacceptable.

Fortunately, neither the researchers working to help us understand this virus nor the federal and state agencies leading the charge to confront it are waiting for Congress to act.  In my conversations with researchers, I have been impressed with how they are moving money around and trying to make do with the limited resources currently at their disposal. I think we will all come away today impressed by what they have achieved so far. The Department of HHS has already taken $500 million from the ongoing Ebola crisis and $50 million more from funds designated for emergency preparedness for states and cities.

While North Carolina and the southeast risk being the center of this crisis, we are also uniquely positioned to be part of the solution.  We have the brainpower and institutions here in the Triangle to make a difference.

So without further ado, let us turn to our panels.  Thank you for gathering here today, and I look forward to an informative discussion.