By Roberta Rampton and Ben Hirschler
Barack Obama will ask the US Congress for more than US$1.8 billion (NZ$2.7 billion) in emergency funds to fight Zika at home and abroad and pursue a vaccine, the White House said on Monday (local time), but the president also said there is no reason to panic over the mosquito-borne virus.
Zika, spreading rapidly in South and Central America and the Caribbean, has been linked to severe birth defects in Brazil and public health officials' concern is focused on pregnant women and woman who may become pregnant.
Obama's request to Congress includes US$200 million for research, development and commercialisation of new vaccines and diagnostic tests for the virus.
In addition, the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA), Europe's drugs regulator, said it has formed an expert task force on Zika to advise companies working on vaccines and medicines against the virus.
There are no vaccines or treatment for Zika and none even undergoing clinical studies, as the disease had previously been viewed as relatively benign.
Most infected people develop either no symptoms or mild ones like a fever and skin rashes.
"The good news is this is not like Ebola, people don't die of Zika. A lot of people get it and don't even know that they have it," Obama told CBS News in an interview aired yesterday.
"But there shouldn't be panic on this, this is not something where people are going to die from it. It is something we have to take seriously."
Scientists are working to find out if there is a causal link between Zika and babies born with microcephaly, meaning they have abnormally small heads and can suffer developmental problems.
The research began after a huge rise in such birth defects last year in Brazil at the same time the virus took hold there.
Most of the money sought by Obama, who faces pressure from Republicans and some fellow Democrats to act decisively on Zika, would be spent in the United States on testing, surveillance and response in affected areas.
"As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental US, particularly in the Southern United States," the White House said in a statement.
Obama's funding request to Congress also includes US$335 million for the US Agency for International Development to support mosquito-control, maternal health and other Zika-related public health efforts in affected countries in the Americas.
There have been 50 confirmed cases of Zika in the continental United States among people who had travelled to affected areas, according to federal health officials.
The White House said it would ask for US$250 million for Caribbean US territory Puerto Rico where Zika is actively being transmitted.