Scientists are pushing back at National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins’ comments earlier this week suggesting that the United States would already have an Ebola vaccine if Congress hadn’t slashed research funding.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Collins said NIH had been working on a vaccine for the deadly virus since at least 2001, but constant budget cuts had slowed down the process by one or two years.
Though it’s true that NIH’s budget has been on the chopping block for years—shrinking by about $5 billion adjusted for inflation—scientists say Collins’ claim that increased NIH funding would have almost certainly resulted in an Ebola vaccine is likely not true—and was instead a way to direct attention to NIH’s dwindling budget.
One biologist at Berkeley University described the comments as “complete bullshit.”
In a blog post, Berkeley’s Michael Eisen writes, “Even if you believe the only thing holding up development of the Ebola vaccine was funds, it’s still false to argue that with more money we’d have an Ebola vaccine. Vaccine and drug development just simply doesn’t work this way. There are long lists of projects, in both the public and private sector that have been very well-funded, and still failed.”
He also makes the point that the NIH chooses which projects to prioritize—so if the chief thought funding was the only problem, he likely could have prioritized funds for Ebola research over other things.
”While money is tight at the NIH, they still manage to find funds to do a lot of stuff I would not have prioritized over an Ebola research program it was really on the crux of delivering a vaccine. So there is an element of choice here too that Collins is downplaying,” Eisen writes.
Meanwhile, science advocates at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology had a similar takeaway from Collins’ remarks.
“Dr. Collins is sending a dangerous message that more money equates to more cures,” writes Benjamin Corb, the advocacy group’s director of public affairs.”
In a blog post published Tuesday, Corb states that though it’s understandable that Collins is drawing attention to his agency’s dwindling budget while the media spotlight is shining, his remarks could seriously backfire and hurt the agency and its researchers.
From the post:
"What happens when Congress listens to Dr. Collins’ argument and appropriates millions of dollars for Ebola research or an Ebola vaccine, and the magic bullet doesn’t come quickly?” Does Congress understand the difficulties of predicting outcomes in the biological sciences? Will Congress have the patience to wait, or will Dr. Collins be brought to testify in front of a panel of angry members of Congress blasting the NIH and the biomedical research community for failing to live up to their end of the bargain? Will they be as likely to fund research in the future?”
The NIH chief and others have called on lawmakers to pass emergency funding to address the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Last month, two Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill that would increase NIH’s budget caps to $46.2 billion in 2021—though it’s unclear whether it will gain traction when lawmakers return to Washington after the midterm elections.
Still, scientists remain weary.
“Rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo -- 'Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine' -- Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research,” Berkeley’s Eisen writes. “The real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.”
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