Zika: Playing Politics with Public Health?

September 2, 2016

As the numbers of Zika cases reach more than 2500 in the U.S. states and 14,000 in U.S. territories — and federal funds to fight the virus nearly depleted — Dr. Anthony Fauci (H’90), director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, came to Georgetown Law on August 31 to discuss whether Americans should be concerned, and why.

Fauci joined University Professor Larry Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law; Dr. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and Dr. Daniel Lucey, an O’Neill Institute senior scholar, in an event that was covered by NBC News and C-SPAN. It was an exceptional start to the O’Neill Institute Colloquium, a class featuring leading national and international scholars exploring contemporary concerns in health law.

“This is not just a ‘one-off’ issue that we’re facing,” Fauci said, pointing to the rise of related viruses in the Americas over the past several years including dengue, West Nile and yellow fever. Nor is Zika new; it was first recognized in mid-twentieth century. But what sets Zika apart is the intrauterine and perinatal transmission that can lead to microcephaly in infants. A baby could also appear normal but have difficulties with hearing, sight and more. “Microcephaly is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Since health experts have so much experience with similar viruses, Fauci predicted with “a fair amount of confidence” that a vaccine will be created. Testing of one potential candidate has already begun, but without resources, success cannot be ensured. He thus called for an emergency public health fund to handle emerging threats outside of the long congressional appropriations process. “There have always been, there are now, and there will always be new emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.”

Gostin noted at the outset that the discussion comes at a very important moment in global health security — with the Zika threat marked by a lack of preparedness, depleted resources, congressional dysfunction and moral concerns.

“We’re uncertain as to what we are seeing, whether this is a hidden epidemic or whether or not there are other cases, and we don’t know what the future will hold in the United States and beyond…” Gostin said. “Should we play politics with the public’s health and safety in the United States?”