By Amanda Becker and Roberta Rampton
BETHESDA, Md./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged Congress on Tuesday to approve $6.18 billion to help fight the Ebola outbreak, reminding them that even though the story has faded from the headlines, the battle against the virus is far from over.
"Every hotspot is an ember that if not contained can become a new fire, so we cannot let down our guard even for a minute," Obama said. "And we can't just fight this epidemic. We have to extinguish it."
Obama toured a lab at the National Institutes of Health, where a team of researchers last week published promising results from the first phase of a research trial for an Ebola vaccine.
Most of Obama's request is aimed at the immediate response to the disease. But the package also includes $1.5 billion in contingency funds - money that could become a target if lawmakers look for cuts, said Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an alliance of U.S. non-governmental aid groups.
While lawmakers recognize that the United States had to take action to arrest Ebola, some are wary of giving the administration too much leeway.
"I think there is less understanding of the need to stay in it for the long run and to build the capacity of countries to ensure this doesn't happen in the future," Worthington said in an interview.
Obama noted that NIH scientists first began work on research that led to the potential Ebola vaccine in 1999, long before the worst outbreak of the disease on record, which has afflicted more than 17,000 people since March, killing more than 6,000.
He said the United States needs to continue to fund basic research and help nations such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone build better public health systems so that the world can quickly contain future disease outbreaks.
"It is a smart investment for us to make. It's not just insurance. It is knowing that down the road we're going to continue to have problems like this, particularly in a globalized world where you move from one side of the world to the other in a day," Obama said.
The Obama administration came under fire in September after a series of missteps with a man who traveled to Dallas from Liberia and later died of Ebola. Two nurses contracted the disease while caring for the man.
Screening and treatment procedures have since been tightened. There are now 35 U.S. hospitals equipped to deal with Ebola patients, up from three before the outbreak.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)