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If not for the NIH, we might have an Ebola vaccine

| October 15, 2014

Given the publicity level of the Ebola crisis, it’s no surprise that people are making political hay out of it. But Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, recently made a truly strange claim; he said that the NIH budget had been in a “10-year slide” and that had prevented an Ebola vaccine.

“NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It’s not like we suddenly woke up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,” Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.”

Doesn’t he work for the Obama administration? Isn’t criticizing the boss a political no-no? Yes, ordinarily, but the Obama administration has been blaming the Republican House of Representatives for the lack of more science funding–but that is the same Republican Congress that doubled funding for the NIH.

Click image for larger size. Credit: NIH

As you can see, during the Clinton years the NIH budget had moderate growth and then climbed substantially during the Bush presidency. What did both those two Presidencies have in common with the NIH funding curve? They both had Republican control in the House of Representatives. President Clinton even had fiscal hawk Representative Newt Gingrich to contend with. When both the White House and the Congressional House were Republican, the NIH budget nearly doubled in just a few years.

So if the NIH had an Ebola vaccine ready in 2001, why didn’t they get it to clinic trials when their budget skyrocketed from $20 billion that year to $28 billion in 2004? They couldn’t work on Ebola with the extra $18 billion they received in those three years? The NIH alone is almost 50% of government-funded science, how can they claim they don’t have enough money to work on a vaccine?

It’s suspect to blame politics for everything but blaming it for the lack of an Ebola vaccine is downright irresponsible. From 2007-2009, Democrats had control in both houses of Congress, including a “bulletproof majority” for part of that time, where they could have passed any law or budget they wanted, so if Democrats care more about Ebola, why didn’t they fund trials then? Instead, one of their biggest science achievements was to replace plastic spoons in the Congressional cafeteria with ones made from corn.

‘More money needed’ is just politics, so it’s no surprise. It is a surprise to read it from Dr. Collins, because in January he expressed concern that a large chunk of NIH-funded programs led to studies that were not reproducible, a fundamental tenet of science, and he said too many papers had a ‘secret sauce’ for their conclusions. He’s been holding hearings to try and make sure less NIH money is wasted while he is claiming three weeks before an election that the NIH could solve the world’s infectious disease problems with a Democratic Congress in place.

What Dr. Collins won’t want mentioned is that the NIH contributed to what kept an ebola vaccine from getting to market. The creators of the ZMapp drug have starved for years trying to get through onerously expensive trials. The NIH wouldn’t give them the money. Who has been funding them instead? The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, part of the Department of Defense that focuses on infectious diseases for combat situations. And DTRA is funding two other companies working on an Ebola vaccine, yet most people have never heard of DTRA and it gets a fraction of the funding the NIH receives. They did it because the NIH would not.

Instead of making this tragedy a political wedge and an excuse for more funding, let’s acknowledge something: America leads the world in science output, America leads the world in Nobel prizes, America leads the world in adult science literacy, but America does not do “Big Science” very well. We saw it with the Human Genome Project, where for a fraction of the cost, Craig Venter was beating the pants off of the government-run effort–which was run by Dr. Collins. We saw it with the Superconducting Supercollider, which was canceled after billions of dollars were spent for nothing more than a giant hole in the ground. The public asks why there are not more cute robots on other planets and the reason is because, as NASA insiders put it, while the James Webb Space Telescope bleeds, their future programs hemorrhage.

Instead of politicizing the peril of Africans and making it about government greed, the NIH should start funding more small programs outside academia. Johns Hopkins University did not create an ebola vaccine despite getting over $7.7 billion in government funding just from the NIH since the 2001 breakthrough Dr. Collins mentioned, nearly $600 million of it in the last year alone.

Does Dr. Collins expect us to believe they would have done it for $10 million more?

Hank Campbell is founder of Science 2.0 and an award-winning science writer who has appeared in numerous publications, from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. In 2012 he was co-author of the bestselling book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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