White House shifts $81 million to Zika research

In the absence of any funding from Congress, the Obama administration announced on Thursday that it will transfer $81 million from existing federal health programs to continue work on developing a Zika vaccine.

In a letter addressed to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said she was allocating $34 million in funding to the National Institutes of Health and $47 million to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), Reuters reported.

The funding is intended to keep research going on a potential Zika vaccine even though Congress has failed to act on it. President Obama asked in February for $1.9 million to help fight the virus. Congress left for summer recess without agreeing on a spending plan.

There is currently no vaccine or cure for Zika, which has spread to more than 50 countries and territories since the outbreak began last year in Brazil. The virus -- which is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes -- has been found to cause devastating birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.

As health officials had been warning for months, Zika started spreading in the United States this summer. To date, at least 25 people have been infected by local mosquitoes in South Florida, most in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. More than 1,900 other people in the U.S. have contracted the virus during travel overseas.

Research on a potential vaccine entered early-stage trials last week. The vaccine will be tested in human volunteers to assess its safety and its ability to generate an immune system response, according to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

"A safe and effective vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection and the devastating birth defects it causes is a public health imperative," NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. said in a statement. "NIAID worked expeditiously to ready a vaccine candidate, and results in animal testing have been very encouraging. We are pleased that we are now able to proceed with this initial study in people. Although it will take some time before a vaccine against Zika is commercially available, the launch of this study is an important step forward."

CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook said, "If this vaccine works, it will be a very big deal."

The first phase of the trial is expected to end in late November or December. Fauci said in a press briefing in Washington that he needs $33 million to prepare to move the potential vaccine to the second phase of trials, Reuters reported.