WASHINGTON, DC – The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), today held a hearing examining current challenges and concerns with the U.S. public health response to the Zika virus outbreak, including the ability to determine the link between Zika and other illnesses, the efficacy and limits of available diagnostic testing, the status of vaccine development, and the federal government’s plan to respond to the potential future spread of the virus.
Dr. Timothy M. Persons, Chief Scientist, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), shared with subcommittee members a new report on the federal government’s response to the virus that says more actions are needed to improve our response to the Zika virus, as well as other possible outbreaks. The report issued five recommendations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to have a more transparent process.
Dr. Persons detailed the GAO report’s findings, stating, “…many unknowns about the Zika virus remain, including (1) the total number of people with symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, (2) the biological mechanisms, risks, reasons for geographic differences, and the full spectrum of outcomes associated with maternal-fetal transmission, (3) the presence and duration of the virus in different bodily fluids, and (4) the role of prior exposure to Zika and other closely related viruses in risk and severity of Zika virus disease outbreaks, and (5) the full spectrum of outcomes associated with Zika virus infection.”
“This is not the first time GAO has done such an analysis in response to emerging infectious diseases,” stated #SubOversight Chairman Murphy. “And each time, GAO has found that HHS was reactive in its response to outbreak prevention, preparedness, detection, and response. Once again, GAO has shown that we were not fully prepared at the outset of the outbreak.”
Dr. Fauci offers his testimony.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, spoke about the hope of a vaccine for the Zika virus, saying, “While we have begun clinical testing of several Zika vaccine candidates, a safe, effective, and fully licensed vaccine likely will not be available for several years.”
Dr. Lyle R. Petersen, Director, Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, CDC, spoke to some of the challenges with diagnostic tests, saying, “One of our first challenges was that while Zika infection typically causes a mild illness or no symptoms at all, the impact of Zika on pregnancies can nonetheless be significant. Therefore, CDC currently recommends testing for all pregnant women who live in or travel to an area with risk of Zika that has a CDC Zika travel notice.”
Dr. Luciana Borio, Acting Chief Scientist, FDA, cited proactive, positive action taken by FDA to help advance diagnostic tests for the virus, like working “interactively with Zika virus diagnostic manufacturers throughout the product development process to address scientific challenges, review data, and provide feedback based on the latest available scientific information.”
Dr. Rick A. Bright, Director, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, stressed that BARDA has been “working closely with our government and industry partners to identify and develop Zika vaccine candidates.” Dr. Bright also gave status updates about the current vaccine candidates that are supported by BARDA.
“Last year, this subcommittee held a hearing on the report of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which presented several concerns and expert recommendations to improve U.S. biodefense,” said full committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR). “The experts on the panel made it quite clear that we need to stop thinking of disease preparedness and response as occasional, episodic events – a reactive approach that has left us constantly lagging in our response efforts. Instead, we must shift our mindsets and strategies towards a broader, more comprehensive, and proactive approach – one that considers the larger context of our preparedness for future infectious diseases and outbreaks.”
For more information on today’s hearing, including a background memo, witness testimony, and archived webcast, click HERE.