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Former White House Ebola Czar Urges Congress To Act Faster On Zika


Ronald Klain is worried about the Zika virus in the U.S., and he says Congress isn't acting fast enough.

RONALD KLAIN: (Reading) It is not a question of whether babies will be born in the United States with Zika-related microcephaly. It is a question of when and how many. For years to come, these children will be a visible human reminder of the cost of absurd wrangling in Washington, of preventable suffering and of a failure of our political system to respond to the threat that infectious diseases pose.

MCEVERS: That's Ronald Klain reading from his op-ed in The Washington Post. From 2014 to 2015, he was the White House Ebola response coordinator, and he is with us now in the studio. Welcome.

KLAIN: Oh, thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: Those are pretty strong words that you wrote there in that op-ed. What specifically is Congress doing or not doing that led you write them?

KLAIN: Well, what it's not doing is funding the response that we need to fight Zika in the United States. In February, President Obama proposed a $1.9 billion plan to attack Zika to fund mosquito control in the areas where these Aedes aegypti mosquitoes will be active this summer, to accelerate research on a vaccine, to do other ways of preventing the spread of Zika. Again, he proposed that in February. Congress still hasn't passed it. They're just not getting it done.

MCEVERS: The Obama administration has already diverted about $600 million from unused Ebola funding to deal with Zika. There are many lawmakers who think that that's an appropriate use of the funds since they hadn't been spent. What's wrong with that argument?

KLAIN: We are just playing with fire if we divert funds away from fighting one disease, one epidemic to go fight another epidemic. This is like saying there's a fire over in the next town; we'll send all the fire trucks from our town over there and put the fire out. That's very dangerous.

Ebola - we still have Ebola in West Africa. There are flare-ups. We have other infectious diseases around the world, and pulling from one of those fights to take on Zika exposes us to greater danger from something else.

You know, in the scheme of things, the kind of money we're talking about - I mean, it's obviously large sums in an absolute sense, but the proposed Zika response - the amount that's in dispute is what the Defense department spends every seven hours. It's a relatively small amount of money in that context, and it's needed to keep the American people safe from this new, infectious disease.

MCEVERS: You talk about creating a public health emergency fund, which could be very quickly tapped without congressional approval if an epidemic presents itself. How would that work?

KLAIN: Well, you know, right now under federal law and something called the Stafford Act, the president has the authority to immediately muster a response to a flood or a fire or earthquake and send aid to the affected areas without waiting for Congress to act.

And it's odd that those kinds of natural disasters are eligible for that kind of assistance, but this other kind of threat from nature - infectious diseases and epidemics - isn't covered by the Stafford Act.

So, you know, my view is either we should expand the Stafford Act to allow epidemics to be covered by it, let the president send emergency aid, or create some kind of public health emergency fund of a different sort that would allow the response to get underway quickly while Congress is sorting out the details. Early action makes such a difference in squelching the spread of a disease and in protecting large numbers of people.

MCEVERS: Are you worried about the Olympics?

KLAIN: Well, I think the Olympics is something to worry about. But, I mean, I think we have to keep in mind the Olympics are taking place in one of the most visited places in the world, Rio de Janeiro. More Americans will go to Rio between now and the Olympics than will go there for the Olympics.

Those folks are at risk of getting Zika and bringing it home. We need to be focused on that and focused on getting ourselves ready to squelch the possible transmission of Zika in the United States.

MCEVERS: That's Ronald Klain. He served as the White House Ebola response coordinator. He is now an external adviser to the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Thank you very much for being with us today.

KLAIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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