GOP leaders, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, say they are open to providing more funding for the Zika response once the Obama administration answers questions about its request. But their cautious approach in responding to the virus, now strongly linked to infant microcephaly, stands in contrast to the aggressive probe now being waged into fetal tissue procurement and research practices by the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.
That disconnect has fueled Democratic attacks on both the funding impasse and the highly polarized fetal tissue investigation.
“If you were just an outsider in the world, listening to the news about Zika, you would assume that a select committee on infant lives would be talking about this horrific impact to infant lives around the globe and potentially here in our country,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on both the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and on the Appropriations subcommittee handling health-related matters.
Zika has figured only tangentially in the House panel’s investigation. Wednesday’s hearing focused on whether abortion clinics and “procurement entities” — middle men who gather and prepare specimens for researchers — have illegally profited from fetal tissue transactions.
The panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), unveiled documents that she said constituted evidence that one procurement firm, StemExpress, had advertised its services as offering financial benefits to clinics. The evidence included marketing materials for a StemExpress partnership program that “fiscally rewards clinics for contributing to the advancement of life-saving research” and, in another case, specifically mentions “Financial Profits.”
A 1993 federal law prohibits the transfer of fetal tissue for “valuable consideration” but does allow “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control or storage” of that tissue.
Blackburn said there is no evidence that the abortion clinics who do business with these procurement firms incur any costs needing to be reimbursed, thus any payments between the two would constitute illegal profits. Panel Republicans invited a trio of former federal prosecutors to Wednesday’s hearing to testify that the StemExpress documents constitute probable cause of a criminal offense — one, they said, that the Justice Department should vigorously investigate.
“It strikes me as odd that there would not be an aggressive and meaningful investigation into the allegation that human baby body parts are being sold for profit,” said Kenneth Sukhia, a former U.S. attorney in Florida.
There is no public indication that the Justice Department has investigated or is investigating StemExpress or the abortion clinics that facilitate fetal tissue donations, including those affiliated with Planned Parenthood. Law enforcement investigations in 12 states have not resulted in any charges for those entities.
Democrats and StemExpress itself — whose name was redacted from the documents but responded publicly with a lengthy statement and letter to the panel — sharply challenged the Republicans’ claims.
StemExpress accused the panel of sourcing some of the documents not from the 900 pages of materials it provided in response to a committee request but from “unauthenticated, stolen documents” obtained by David Daleiden, the anti-abortion activist who produced the undercover videos that sparked the panel’s creation.
The marketing materials mentioning financial “benefits” and “profits,” StemExpress said, referenced its work with adult blood and tissue, which it said constitutes the “overwhelming majority” of its work and all of its profit.
In the statement, StemExpress mentioned Zika as the type of research supported by the fetal tissue it procures.
“Many researchers throughout the medical community have shared with StemExpress that their institutions are waiting for the Select Panel to complete its investigation before going forward with additional fetal tissue research specific to the Zika virus and potential treatments,” the firm said.
At the panel’s first hearing in March, a University of California San Diego researcher, Lawrence Goldstein, testified that new restrictions on fetal tissue research would “absolutely delay” a vaccine or cure for Zika or the fetal disorders it is believed to cause.
Last week, CDC researchers published a paper claiming that “sufficient evidence has accumulated to infer a causal relationship between prenatal Zika virus infection and microcephaly and other severe brain anomalies.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) asked why the Zika threat wasn’t getting more attention from the panel given its moniker: “Considering Zika-affected infants suffer from brain damage, severe seizures and other medical problems, why aren’t we talking about protecting those infant lives?”
In a news conference after the hearing, Blackburn disputed the notion that fetal tissue is necessary to combat Zika. The CDC study, which synthesized findings from other studies, did not explicitly mention fetal tissue research, and Blackburn cited a Washington Post article on another recent study that used adult stem cells to discover a link between Zika and microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
“All of us want to see progress made in curing diseases, and all of us want to push forward when it comes to precision medicine and addressing outbreaks such as Zika,” she said. “I don’t see that there is a cause-and-effect or a relationship or a contradiction between that. What we are charged with doing is figuring out if there is a violation, if there is a profit, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
Blackburn noted the administration’s redirection of Ebola response funding to the Zika threat — a maneuver which has been the centerpiece of the House Republican response to the White House request for emergency funds.
There has been movement in the Senate on providing emergency Zika funds. The Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, said at a Thursday committee meeting that he expected supplemental funds for Zika to be attached to a spending bill on the Senate floor “in the near future.” But House GOP appropriators have maintained that, with the redirected Ebola funding, the Zika response can wait until the congressional spending process culminates in the fall.
Ryan (R-Wis.), who has backed those appropriators, said Thursday that Zika is an issue “we take extremely seriously” and did not rule out an emergency funding measure. But he said the Obama administration has yet to provide “followup answers to the questions that we’ve had about what is needed, where it’s needed, and what pipeline we need to put the money through.”
“We see our job as being good stewards of the taxpayer dollars as making sure that we have answers to our questions about how we fund these things,” he said.
Matt Dennis, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, said the administration “has been extremely forthcoming and answered every question asked of them, repeatedly, but Congress continues to hem and haw over accounting while the virus spreads.”
“We need vaccines, diagnostics, and mosquito control now — not when the majority gets around to it,” he said.
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.