By Roberta Rampton and Ben Hirschler
WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will ask the U.S. Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika at home and abroad and pursue a vaccine, the White House said on Monday, but he added 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 women who may become pregnant.
Obama's request to Congress includes $200 million for research, development and commercialization of new vaccines and diagnostic tests for the virus.
At least 12 groups are working to develop a vaccine. On Monday, the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA), Europe's drugs regulator, said it established an expert task force to advise companies working on Zika vaccines and medicines, mirroring similar action during the two-year-long Ebola epidemic that started in December 2013 and the pandemic flu outbreak in 2009.
There are no vaccines or treatment for Zika and none even undergoing clinical studies. Most infected people either have no symptoms or develop mild ones like 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 on Monday. "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."
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, including the creation of rapid-response teams to contain outbreak clusters.
At a White House briefing, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she was not expecting "large-scale amounts of serious Zika infections" in the continental United States as warmer months bring larger and more active mosquito populations.
"We do think it's likely that we will have limited local transmission in some of the southern states," Schuchat said.
Obama's funding request to Congress includes $335 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development to support mosquito-control, maternal health and other Zika-related public health efforts in affected countries in the Americas.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the White House briefing a vaccine likely would not be widely available "for a few years."
Fauci said he anticipated beginning a so-called Phase 1 trial this summer for a Zika vaccine that would take about three months to test if it is safe and induces a good immune response before further studies can be conducted.
The CDC said its Zika emergency operations center, with a staff of 300, has been placed on its highest level of activation, reflecting a need for accelerated preparedness for possible local virus transmission by mosquitoes in the continental United States.
Some lawmakers have urged Obama to name a Zika "czar" to head U.S. efforts against the virus, but Fauci said he sees no need right now for such an appointment.
Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems.
Brazil is investigating the potential link between Zika infections and more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly. Researchers have identified evidence of Zika infection in 17 of these cases, either in the baby or in the mother, but have not confirmed that Zika can cause microcephaly.
Word that Zika can be spread by sexual transmission and blood transfusions and its discovery in saliva and urine of infected people have added to concern over the virus.
The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international health emergency on Feb. 1, citing a "strongly suspected" relationship between Zika infection in pregnancy to microcephaly.
Brazil is grappling with the virus even as it prepares to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, with tens of thousands of athletes and tourists anticipated.
The U.S. Olympic Committee has told U.S. sports federations that athletes and staff concerned about their health due to Zika should consider not going to the Olympics.
The message was delivered in a conference call involving USOC officials and leaders of U.S. sports federations in late January.
Former Olympian Donald Anthony, president and board chairman of USA Fencing, said, "One of the things that they immediately said was, especially for women that may be pregnant or even thinking of getting pregnant, that whether you are scheduled to go to Rio or no, that you shouldn't go."
At the White House, Fauci said athletes would need to make a personal decision about whether or not to skip the Olympics.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Megan Cassella, Roberta Rampton and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Ben Hirschler in London, Daniel Bases and Joshua Schneyer in New York, Anthony Esposito and Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)