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Francis Collins Knows Why We Don’t Have An Ebola Vaccine

NIH Director Francis Collins has been saying that if only the agency’s budget hadn’t been cut, that we would already have an Ebola vaccine. He tried this line out during recent Congressional testimony, and apparently liked it enough that he expanded on it in an article for the Huffington Post. Collins’ statements have been fodder for election-season attack ads, naturally. Personally I endorse the take on this from Michael Eisen at Berkeley (emphasis added):

. . .it’s time to call this for what it is: complete bullshit.
First, let’s deal with the most immediate assertion – that if there had been more funds there would be an Ebola vaccine today. Collins argues we’d be a few years ahead of where they are today, and that, instead of preparing to enter phase 1 trials today, they’d have done this two years ago. But last time I checked, there was a reason we do clinical trials, which is to determine if therapies are safe and effective. And, crucially, many of these fail (how many times have we heard about HIV vaccines that were effective in animals). Thus, 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.
It is a gross overtrivialization of even the directed scientific process involved in developing vaccines to suggest that simply by spending more money on something you are guaranteed a product. And, if I were in Congress, frankly I’d be sick of hearing this kind of baloney, and would respond with a long list of things I’d been promised by previous NIH Directors if only we’d spend more money on them.

Eisen would have have the case made for basic research, emphasizing that without decades of funding for it that we wouldn’t even be in the position to try making an Ebola vaccine at all. But that doesn’t grab enough headlines. Better to pander to the Disease of the Week, and tell everyone that if only you had more cash, you most certainly would have done something about it by now.
NIH budget
I’ll go one further. Here’s a graph of the NIH budget over the last twenty years (inflation adjusted). You will note that the large rise during the last part of the Clinton years and during G. W. Bush’s first term; the fact that this trajectory did not continue has been the source of a good deal of turmoil over the years. There was also a blast of funding in the stimulus-spending package in 2009, which has also not been repeated, and I believe that this has caused similar disruption. Neglecting that, the NIH budget has been in the $30-$35 billion range (inflation-adjusted) for many years, although it is down around 10% from its peak in 2004. (Note that 2013 is estimated in this chart – the real number dips just below the $30 billion line).
This, then, is what a “slashed budget” looks like, from above, anyway. The classic Washington way of referring to budget cuts, though, comes from smaller increases than were planned. So if a program was originally budgeted to get 10% more funding, but it only ends up getting 5% more, than everyone who advocates for it goes out and says that spending on it was cut in half. And if it was supposed to stay even and instead shrinks by 2%, well, you can imagine. That’s when the so-called “Washington Monument” strategy kicks in – if they decide to freeze or cut the Park Service budget, the first thing you do is close the Washington Monument, so as to make a highly visible and annoying case for your agency to have the money, anyway.
Now, there is room to complain about the allocations inside the NIH itself – there are programs where less money really is being spent. But while the overall budget for the agency has declined, it hasn’t done so in the massive clear-cutting fashion that you might imagine if you read, for example, editorials by Francis Collins. But he’s just doing what every other agency head does – bang the drum for their vital, essential funding. It would be a better world if Michael Eisen’s recommendation of pitching basic research funding were to be effective, but I’m not sure that we live there. Where we live, we get. . .well, bullshit instead.
Update: man, the comments are rolling in on this one. So to clarify things, let me say that I think that NIH is a good thing, and should be well funded. But I also think that trying to get it funded by saying that we surely would have had an Ebola vaccine by now is not a good thing to do – it’s not very effective, for one thing, because this is the same sort of story that always gets used, and it’s also not very accurate. I realize that good things are often accomplished less exalted means, but you’d hope that there would be better means than this.

97 comments on “Francis Collins Knows Why We Don’t Have An Ebola Vaccine”

  1. Cato the Elder says:

    When I first heard that line from Collins, I scoffed. But if you think about it, this BS is no worse than what every defense agency says to get money and at least it’s for something useful

  2. Anonymous says:

    Derek, of all the issues you could have talked about in your influential column you essentially used it to argue against increasing the budget for basic research? Damn son…..

  3. Witold says:

    Politicians lie, cheat, and steal!! News at 11.

  4. Witold says:

    Politicians lie, cheat, and steal!! News at 11.

  5. steve says:

    This is a gross oversimplification. NIH receives nearly 25% less funding than it did in 2003 when adjusted for inflation. Overall, federal R&D funding has fallen by $24 billion since 2010, partly as a consequence of sequestration, which removed $1.4 billion from NIH funding. As anyone who relies on them knows, the percent of grants approved but not funded has increased dramatically over the past several years. It may not be possible to say that we’d have an Ebola vaccine by now if all this wasn’t true but it certainly didn’t help.

  6. Bezerkelius says:

    Let’s just play this to its logical conclusion, and continue to let funding decline for agencies like the NIH and the CDC. Then, when federal public health agencies fail to provide a robust response to Ebola, we can point a finger to the inability of the government to act effectively. This would certainly provide the rationale to enact further spending cuts until we end up with a public health sector that can truly rival Liberia’s. Because we can assuredly leave it to the private sector to rush into the clinic with vaccines for diseases endemic in Africa, just as eagerly as they have pursued new anti-infective therapeutics.
    I would love to hear from individuals who have participated in NIH study sections recently, to learn if they concur with Dr. Lowe’s Panglossian perspective.

  7. Barry says:

    Two years ago, no one could have recouped the expense of R$D on an Ebola vaccine, because only a few healthcare workers would have wanted it. People don’t line up to pay for a vaccine against a disease that’s not threatening them.
    And a clinical trial requires patients. When no one in the world has Ebola, that’s a problem. Just vaccinating a village or twelve and documenting that they’re still disease free a year later–when they were already disease-free–won’t convince anyone.
    So an Ebola vaccine couldn’t have been developed before the outbreak.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This was a pretty good blog post until it descended into talk of politicians and Washington and budget increases/decreases being whatever. Hilarious talk and a bit hypocritical seeing as how Derek is a direct beneficiary of government funding of basic sciences as we all are who have our PhDs.

  9. nodrugsnopeace says:

    Every day thousands of Ebola vaccines fly over La Jolla from MCAS Miramar. Sometimes we see school lunches, too. They both tend to fly slowly so that Head Start funding doesn’t get scared when it flies into our neverending battle with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia, and the NIH will have to learn to accept that.

  10. oldnuke says:

    ” if only the agency’s budget hadn’t been cut, that we would already have an Ebola vaccine.”
    And if my Aunt had balls, she’d be my Uncle.
    If I were President, I’d fire this guy for being incurably stupid.

  11. Dr Jimbo says:

    Another point is that if the NIH had had an extra $10 billion say over the last 10 years – how much of that would have gone on any sort of Ebola research, let alone vaccine-directed? Ebola is big right now, but wasn’t a big item on the public health radar for a few years.

  12. eham says:

    @5 steve: The “graph of the NIH budget over the last twenty years (inflation adjusted)” IS inflation adjusted.

  13. Hap says:

    1) If you want more money for NIH, it has to come from somewhere. Since we seem unwilling to pay more (because we don’t trust the government to do something effective, because we don’t trust what it is doing or wants to do, or because we don’t want to pay more) and are either unwilling to elect people to change what it spends money on or can’t change it, this is what we get. Most likely, if you want to have more money for basic research, someone has to pay more (because zero-sum-games and bureaucracies don’t work well together). Based on the seeming drift of politics to the right, I assume that people do not want to pay more money; hence, good luck.
    2) How much money was NIH spending on an Ebola vaccine before? If it was any reasonable amount, people would have complained that that money could have been spent on something that almost everyone in NIH and biomedicine would have thought was more important. How an Ebola vaccine would have been made under those conditions as opposed to the ones we have seems like Dr. Oz-level doublethink. (Perhaps Collins could have spent some of the boatload of money he’s advocated for NIH to make drugs as badly as pharma to develop an Ebola vaccine, if he thought it were so damn important.)
    3) Collins’ complaints are why we’re in some of the mess we’re in. Over and over, NIH has promised lots of things would happen with more research money, and most of them couldn’t have happened even with it. Instead, we made lots of bureaucracy and cheap labor for universities and start-ups, but not much else. Eventually, when you keep telling whoppers about what spending on basic research can and can’t do, people stop believing you. Since the inherent bias of most people is not to spend money, guess what happens?
    If you lose money in constant dollars, and most things get more expensive (depending on if the rate of inflation in the bulk looks like the rate of inflation for NIH’s spending), then it’s an effective cut. The ardor of executives (and Congresspeople?) for making new facilities means that more has to be maintained with less money, so the research budgets (the money that funds people and other useful things) drop more rapidly than the bulk spending. “Slash” might be more accurate for researchers.

  14. Craig Venter says:

    “We’d already have an Ebola vaccine” from the man who took 30 years to sequence the human genome at enormous cost when Craig Venter did it in one for a fraction of the cost.

  15. simpl says:

    One train of thought has been that the world is further along towards Ebola remedies than is economically justifable, since the disease has potential as a bioweapon. Yeah! for security, that contributor of positive economic impact.
    However, countermeasures research is less interested in cures than in feasible alternatives, so this kind of development is not ready-to-launch: for example, studies say chloroquine is an antiviral in an Ebola model – but we are nowhere near geared up to ship a planeful of this existing drug to Liberia tomorrow.

  16. Hap says:

    Funny, I thought you’d been busy looking over NIH’s shoulders to help make your copy of the genome. Did it on your own, my…

  17. watcher says:

    Collins is grandstanding in a transparent attempt to get Congress to approve more money for NIH. More money for NIH is not needed, as too much is already wasted on silly, not useful projects as well as excess overhead at NIH. Also, if NIH want so make grant money go further, they should set a certain % for institutional overhead….say 30%….instead of letting individual institutions demand ransoms in overhead to the US taxpayer that often reach 70 to 80%. This is ridiculous, and the head of such agencies become too self-important for the taxpayers good.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Damn straight. I wish that the heads of federal agencies had the same humility as CEOs of pharmaceutical corporations. For the taxpayers’ good, of course. Always for the taxpayers’ good.

  19. MSFC member says:

    @5 – I think the AAAS graph is already inflation adjusted, but perhaps you have access to hard numbers demonstrating an effective 25% reduction.
    @6 – As an active NIH study section member, yes, I concur fully.
    Please remember, congress authorized a huge jump in spending on research to defend against biowarfare agents after 9/11 and the anthrax scares on Capitol hill.
    “To implement the biodefense agendas, Congress increased NIH appropriations for biodefense research from $53 million in FY 2001 to $1.5 billion in FY 2003 and approximately $1.7 billion in FY 2005; the President has requested $1.8 billion for FY 2006.”
    — From U.S. Senate testimony by NIAID (National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease) director Anthony Fauci on the NIH Biodefense Research Program to the Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Public Health, Feb 8, 2005.
    To implement the research program, NIAID created a nationwide network of 7 ‘Regional Centers of Excellence’,
    http://www.niaid.nih.gov/labsandresources/resources/rce/pages/sites.aspx
    which disbursed very large amounts of money to a few well-connected infectious disease experts. The medical school microbiology faculty whose underfunded research labs had languished for years (unless they switched to HIV) raised their champagne glasses in thanks to the unstable individual who mailed anthrax powder to Ted Kennedy. The RCE’s were lavishly funded for 10 years with the goal of new antibiotic and vaccine development for pathogens — including ebola.
    As far as I know, Dr. Collins has not in his critical remarks about federal research funding credited this major NIH program or acknowledged Congress’s direct role in these appropriations. Dr. Fauci, on the other hand, knows just how much of his budget was earmarked for vaccine development over the last 12 years, and he seems to have distanced himself from Dr. Collins’ remarks.
    Michael Eisen’s and Derek’s comments suggest that NIH leadership has squandered the agency’s credibility by adopting the same fear-mongering tactics employed by every other rent-seeking inside-the-beltway special interest. I agree, and add that this is a terrible disservice to the genuinely noble cause of science.

  20. @17 Not to worry the head of the house science committee is doing his best to make sure research funding only goes to ‘useful’ items. I, for one, welcome politicians deciding what constitutes useful. After all they’ve done a great job dealing with larger budget issues.
    By the way the head of the house science committee is Lamar Smith. He’s a climate change skeptic and his colleagues on the committee are such luminaries as Paul Broun who believes that evolution is a lie from the pit of hell.
    It may be that you can’t see the use of some projects, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one or won’t be one. Perhaps google the golden goose award.”The purpose of the “Golden Goose” award is to demonstrate the human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.”
    Or we could cut the NIH budget and spend that money on another damn F-35.

  21. Biff says:

    …and it is a mistake to take those inflation figures at face value, too. First, it’s important to understand exactly how they were calculated and to weigh any potential conflicts of interest, especially since they are research-specific calculations, developed by the “Department of Commerce under an interagency agreement with the NIH. The projections for future year values are prepared in the Office of Extramural Research, NIH.”* Second, there are many possible factors that can contribute to high inflation rates in a particular vertical market, including previous spending increases (i.e. when there is a lot of money flowing, price sensitivity tends to decrease) and specific budget allocations (i.e. when a buyer decides to increase activity in particularly costly areas).
    To those who seem to be suggesting that Collins’ behavior is either excusable because it’s for a good cause (#2) or that private industry may not always be objective or humble (18), keep in mind that one of the supposed justifications for government-sponsored research is that it has been seen as relatively objective and above the fray of crass politics and commercial concerns. If that perception of credibility goes away, then political support for NIH, NSF, etc. may evaporate very quickly, and then there will be a *real* funding crisis.
    I remember when Collins was a real scientist. Now he’s just as corrupt as the next politician.
    * http://officeofbudget.od.nih.gov/gbiPriceIndexes.html

  22. Anonymous says:

    I dont believe this chart takes into consideration inflation, or more accurately the dramatically increased cost of doing research, which rises faster than inflation-go look at catalogs from 10 years ago!
    Derek, NIH funding is a disaster and what ever means is necessary to increase funding are warranted. you think lobbyists for other areas worry about things like whether we have a crystal ball to predict whether a vaccine would or would not have come along with more funding??
    All the biotech’s and pharmas paying your salary were based on research funded by NIH. Is this really a smart angle? I dont think so.

  23. Anonymous says:

    “Eisen would have have the case made for basic research, emphasizing that without decades of funding for it that we wouldn’t even be in the position to try making an Ebola vaccine at all. But that doesn’t grab enough headlines. Better to pander to the Disease of the Week, and tell everyone that if only you had more cash, you most certainly would have done something about it by now.”
    This is the whole point. So this is smart move by Collins and you Derek agrees.
    Getting the public to push for funding of basic research is difficult. Why not use Ebola as attention grabbing?

  24. JAB says:

    Study sections are indeed struggling to fund very much. I’m working ad hoc on one now. And intramural NIH is contracting equally fast.
    Why does no one mention the US Army’s interest in Ebola – they’ve worked on it for years and must have something that could be shared from USAMRIID

  25. Bezerkelius says:

    @24 Are you telling me that Senator Ted Kennedy is encouraging the DOD to devote some of their scant funding to public sector research on infectious disease? That those tax-and-spend maniacs at DTRA and DARPA are squandering their funds on safeguards against biological threats?
    Doesn’t the DOD realize that this work could be better subcontracted to Blackwater or some other private sector entity?

  26. Anon says:

    Good questions by the congressman for Dr. Collins: http://kingston.house.gov/uploadedfiles/nih_ebola_vaccine.pdf

  27. exchem says:

    @23, “Why not use Ebola as attention grabbing?”
    Well, just one reason that comes to mind is because it’d be dishonest. There must be hundreds more obscure tropical diseases out there affecting tens of people every few years. I don’t hear anyone saying now which ones we should develop vaccines for before they go epidemic.

  28. Anonymous says:

    @27, Exactly. I agree. But the public does not care about those diseases…yet. They do care about Ebola.
    Dishonest? Give me a break.

  29. Vader says:

    @1,
    I, for one, appreciate having a competent military and regard it as useful. One can of course argue about whether a particular defense budget item is really needed or whether overall military spending is justified.
    Just as one can argue the details every other item on the budget, including NIH.

  30. MoMo says:

    The NIAID spent 5.06 Billion since 2008. How much was awarded to EBOLA reserachers? 16.8 Million, weighing in at 0.3% of the budget over the same time frame.
    To say that there was not enough money is disingenuous.
    There was not enough interest.

  31. Anonymous says:

    BS indeed.
    First, NIH could have chosen to do with existing money whatever they wanted to. They had reasons why they didn’t choose Ebola. Second, in the past there were almost no patients to run clinical trials.

  32. antibi says:

    whose side are you on anyways Derek?

  33. NMH says:

    As a research associate with my advisor having a joint appointment in a large state (R1) school Dept of Microbiology and Immunology, I laughed at Collins’ comment. There is plenty of money in the system of academic research, but a lot of the money is wasted. A lot of the faculty I work with no longer have grants and do little each day except twiddle there thumbs at full 6-figure-a-year salaries, fully supported by indirect costs from taxpayer money. Im not sure how to solve this problem but money transferred from deadwood salary to active research in Ebola Immunology could help.

  34. exchem says:

    @28,
    Yes, it’d be dishonest to try to get funding by saying that you know which disease is going to be the next Ebola, when you actually have no idea.

  35. antibi says:

    NMH – I agree this is a huge problem. But keep in mind that it is unfair to attribute their salaries to indirect cost. Tuition is still a major source of income for universities.

  36. Anonymous says:

    It’s kind of stupid to argue that what Collins is doing is blatantly dishonest. It’s impossible to make the general public understand why funding basic research is so important when many intelligent scientists right here on this blog don’t even understand it themselves. How can you explain the economic and health benefits long term funding of basic research? People don’t understand the value added to the economy by educating scientists regardless of whether they wind up doing research, the economic stimulation of research that leads down the road to IP(yes, a lot of the IP that exists in biotech/pharma) and the actual benefit to human health when that novel IP gets turned into treatments for disease. Instead, we have the very direct beneficiaries of that funding in the form of fellowships for PhDs and the novel IP that they work on in industry arguing AGAINST funding basic research? Talking about funding ‘silly not-important’ projects. Look at the big picture that’s what Collins is doing. Even scientists themselves who are the direct beneficiaries don’t understand the critical nature of funding basic research. That’s why he needs to talk about Ebola.

  37. Chemjobber says:

    @5: “NIH receives nearly 25% less funding than it did in 2003 when adjusted for inflation.”
    This is a falsifiable statement, which I appreciate. Can you clarify/provide a link?

  38. RET says:

    I leave Sunday for a study section panel that will score 80 grants. More than 50% will not be discussed and under ten of them will receive a score that puts them in the funding range. We can argue about whether the overall budget is too large or too small but to suggest that about 10% of these projects are worthy of funding is ridiculous. We had it right when we funded in the 25% range.
    One important point has been missed. In the past decade of flat NIH budgets there has also been mandatory initiatives driven by politicians; 1. bioterrorism throughout the Bush years and 2. the Brain Initiative during Obama’s terms. Important area, sure…more money to do it, No!

  39. Anon says:

    To emphasize how critical things are, I’d like to see another graph showing % grants awarded (compared with applicants) – funding is flat but labs/PIs/groups is going up.
    Remember, about 90% of the money in that graph goes to the extramural community, and NIH intramural has tried to buffer the extramural community from budget cuts at the expense of intramural research (like NIAID vaccine research).

  40. MoMo says:

    You bet a lot of money is wasted in academia- Here’s the top funded schools by NIAID in order of highest to lowest number of projects:
    university of california
    johns hopkins university
    university of pennsylvania
    san francisco
    emory university
    university of washington
    massachusetts general hospital
    univ of north carolina chapel hill
    yale university
    Out of all these awards only 1 ivory tower received funding for EBOLA- the Univ of Pennsylvania! Congratulations!
    And the top pathogens studied? HIV, TB, Malaria, Influenza, Dengue, Staph and Salmonella.
    Either the section reviewers suck, there are not enough applicants for EBOLA research, or its the same old-same old. Hell, the cluster for Gram negatives didn’t even pop up in the list. Its a mix of all 3.
    We are in trouble as a nation studying infectious diseases as even the academics are apathetic and stack the system. AND Collins doesn’t even know what is going on!

  41. Anonymous says:

    Those who think Collins is fighting for basic research are mistaken. Remember “this is the National Institutes of Health not Basic Science” or something similar that he said a couple years ago in his push to translate all of the amazing discoveries that are languishing in the basic science literature into disease therapeutics. The crisis in basic research funding now stems as much from the ever increasing research capacity model that we currently use that relies on continuous 9% increases in NIH funding to avert crisis as well as the emphasis on translational research at NIH. What also doubled between 2000 and 2005 was the number of biomedical PhDs granted Some of whom have been hired by universities as NIH overhead solicitors. It is sad to say but more money at the NIH will have little impact on basic research funding let alone the lunacy regarding having a prophylactic cure for Ebola– this is something Eisen has also written about in the last couple years. That the public doesn’t want to support basic research is irrelevant. There are many government functions that are important but not populist boilerplate. Ensuring that these functions are adequately funded requires a long term view and leadership both of which are lacking seriously in Washington in both our elected officials and in public servants like Collins.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Your plot is absolute garbage unless you know how “FY 2012 dollars” were calculated. I’m betting it’s based on the CPI, which is great if R&D were done in apartments with ground beef. If it’s from the PPI, the authors get points for trying, but industrial inputs have little bearing on the costs of R&D.

  43. Jon says:

    @25 If Ted Kennedy is encouraging the DOD to do anything at this point, we clearly need to stop worrying about Ebola and put all our research into a treatment for zombies.

  44. Hap says:

    @42: Comment 21 already explained that – it’s not based on the CPI.
    @35: There (seems to be/is) a lot of interest by schools in getting some of that federal research money. (Lots of schools seem really interested in becoming “research universities”.) In public universities (e.g., OSU), tuition increases are likely capped by the legislatures, and though they keep trying to circumvent the caps (for example, by adding extra fees for everything they can, such as having a library, or gym, or student center), I’m not sure how long they can continue without getting slapped. So, it’s not ridiculous that schools looking to sustain their administrations would decide that the best way to do so is to attract lots of (grant-fetching) researchers, because 40-60% overhead on grants will cover a lot of “Assistant Vice Provost of X” positions.

  45. biotech scientist says:

    In my opinion, there haven’t been that many NIH applicants. I was very surprised GSK had a candidate ready for phase I. The New-link genetics guys in Iowa had the most going on I thought. I went to a few vaccine conferences in 2008-2010 where USAMRIID was, and most of the diseases they were working on were terrible encephalitic & zoonotic viruses that had infected 1000X what Ebola had up to last year. For Collins to have taken this line, disappoints me because I have followed and have been a supporter of his.

  46. The Iron Chemist says:

    First off, Collin’s comments are laughable. If spent money went directly into results, there would be vaccines for AIDS and all kinds of other diseases by now. It’s disconcerting to see so many commenters that suggest that it’s OK to lie to the public to get a desired result.
    Second off, the NIH has spent money foolishly. For too long, they decided that it was a good idea to give massive total synthesis groups massive amounts of money to come up with impractical syntheses for impractical natural products. They’ve directed even more money towards projects that have produced flashy press releases followed by much quieter retractions.

  47. Anonymous says:

    I would agree with Derek that NIH wasted money on chasing diseases. Ironically, spending money on basic science (BS), you get drugs for treating diseases; spending money on claiming disease treatment, you get another kind of BS.

  48. Secondaire says:

    As a person who is currently funded directly by the NIH (and thus I consider myself to be rather pro-NIH, as it were), my opinion on this is split (as many peoples’ seems to be). Yes, it is rather dishonest (at worst) and naive (at best) to say that “throwing money at problem X will solve problem X” when the exact mechanisms by which people will solve problem X are very complicated), but at the same time, if it’s simply an appeal to the general public about the importance of NIH funding basic science (logistics swept under the rug), I don’t really see the problem with it. Is it a misrepresentation? Yes. Should Collins have phrased it differently? Absolutely. Is it bullshit? Not really.

  49. idiotraptor says:

    I was unaware of Francis Collins’ remarks until I looked at Derek’s blog while eating my lunch. Without doubt, Collins’ remarks are silly, a bit disingenuous, and ill-considered. Speaking as scientist who previously worked in viral vaccine development both as a post-doc and in industry, I’ll make a few remarks in no particular order.
    Ebola virus vaccine research and development has been ongoing for at least a decade. Much work has been performed by the military at USAMRIID. Many readers wll invoke all mannner of dark and nefarious rationales for this. The fact is, the military deploys personnel all over the world in areas where serious infectious agents are endemic. They want vaccines and therapies to respectively, immunize against and therapeutically treat these agents.
    Developing an Ebola virus vaccine is difficult at many levels. Correlates of immune protection like virus specific-antibody production virus-specific cell-mediated immunity can be measured in animal models without the need to employ live virus. However, preclinical vaccination-virus challenge studies necesary to support product development under the FDA Animal Rule will of necessity have to be conducted in high biological containment. I’m not fully informed on the issue, but both the CDC and USAMRIID may be the only faclities in the US which have the necessary containment for performing such studies. Both Mapp Pharmaceuticals and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals have Ebola specific therapeutics in development. They are therepeutics and not prophylactic vaccines. I believe GSK has an Ebola vaccine in development as well, the details of which escape me.
    There must be a need, an accessible market, and credible renenue stream to justify vaccine development by a commerical entity. Prior to the current Ebola outbreak in west Africa, none of these criteria uniformly obtained.

  50. MarkySparky says:

    Maybe I have been marinating in the biodefense-industrial complex soup for too long, but EBOV funding has been very “available” if you knew where to look. I have been tangentially involved in two DTRA projects, and they certainly were not frugal… Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 4 different EBOV vaccine approaches that have been developed since 9/11, most in multiple variations. I can’t speak to the antiviral side of things, but the Mapp Biopharma and related companies seemed to pull decent funding over the years.
    Maybe NIH-funded Ebola projects are scant, but that is not the whole of Ebola research, not by a long shot.
    Funding of NIH and basic research are justifiable/laudable in their own right. Tying funding (in explicit or implicit terms) to specific outcomes is short-sighted and craven. It plays into the hands of those politicians/activists who want to audit NIH projects and will grandstand about “curing hiccups in mice” and “counting homosexual frogs”. Congress shouldn’t decide research priorities, just like academics shouldn’t drive drug development. F@#k those people; don’t play that game.
    And no, Ebola is still not 0.00001% of the problem posed to Africans by much less scary diseases (e.g. rotavirus). It is now probably worth the resources of Phase 1 trials, but it probably wasn’t before this year.
    /rant

  51. johnnyboy says:

    @45 and others: I think it bears pointing out that the NewLink Genetics vaccines that was just put into Ph1 was developed around 2008, by a Canadian government lab. I don’t know how much it cost to develop, but if the Canadian government had the money, I’m pretty sure the NIH could have scraped together enough, any time it wanted to. It’s not a question of budget, but rather of will and priorities. So Collins’ comments really are rather cynical and opportunistic.

  52. steve says:

    For those who questioned my statements about funding loss due to inflation please see this graph from AAAS, which is more informative than the one that Derek posted. Click on the graph to the right. http://tinyurl.com/k2qbh2c

  53. Hap says:

    But basic research (or NIH research) has never been about putting in money and getting specific benefits, mostly because you don’t know how hard a task will be before you start looking, and because you seem to find lots of useful stuff where you weren’t meaning to look (and want to continue having the chance to look wherever something interesting could lurk). Telling people something that sounds like a promise of ends in return for cash is making a promise you can’t keep, something people will remember even longer than the promises you did keep.
    In addition, NIH didn’t care about Ebola much (because few people here did), so saying more money to NIH would have resulted in more money for Ebola research, much less something useful against Ebola, is likely untrue.
    The NIH only has so much credibility with the public, and so much goodwill (at least, goodwill for which people will give them money). Saying things like this depletes both of them. If it’s not BS, it’s sure as hell counterproductive.

  54. Chemjobber says:

    52: Wooooowwwwwww. I had no idea that NIH has developed its own inflation index (titled the “Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI)”) in order to calculate this number.
    From NIH’s website (linked in my handle):
    “The BRDPI was developed and is updated annually by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Department of Commerce under an interagency agreement with the NIH.”
    Steve, thanks for the information. It is more helpful to make clear that when you refer to “inflation” that you meant “NIH/BEA’s specific definition of inflation.”

  55. Chemjobber says:

    Oops — now it’s linked in my handle.

  56. DrSnowboard says:

    Let’s face it, Ebola is a difficult virus to study due to the need for Cat4 containment. And its a difficult proposition to fund by pharma unless i) rich americans get it ii) rich americans think they are going to get it. Look at the history of other sporadically deadly diseases. Roche and GSK were coming up empty on influenza until the H5N1 pandemic caused the stockpiling rush. Thankfully the influenza pandemic hasn’t materialised (yet). I would have assumed ebola research would have been done by the military, because it ‘could’ be used as a weapon, albeit a very inefficient one. Or at least the threat of its use would allow them to allocate spend. The Head of the NIH has used a form of words that is ludicrous, but he is doing no different to every other head of department , institution or project manager trying to get a slice of funding.

  57. steve says:

    As one poster mentioned, the cost of doing research rises faster than general inflation. Those of you working in large pharma don’t seem to have a clue what it’s like having to work off of grants. It’s gotten increasingly more difficult as funding has gone down due to sequestration cuts rather than increases to keep up with costs.

  58. steve says:

    Of course, the Republican response has been to trot out a few projects that sound silly on the face of it as evidence that there is too much money spent on research. Just proof of the extreme ignorance that occurs when scientific funding is subject to politicians who don’t believe in evolution, global warming or anything that might conflict with their ideology.

  59. Anonymous says:

    Never mind the technical challenges. It would have been quite difficult to develop a treatment for ebola without any patients to test it on.

  60. johnnyboy says:

    If you look at the history of known Ebola outbreaks here: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/history/chronology.html
    you will see that there have been small outbreaks pretty much every couple of years since 1995. So the argument that “we couldn’t test it without cases” doesn’t hold. Every one of those outbreaks would have provided an opportunity to at least do a small Ph1 trial to check for vaccine safety, seroconversion and the like, using patient care personnel, family of sick patients, etc… Again, it’s not money, technical issues or opportunity that were the problem, it was the choice of priorities. In a sense, Collins is probably trying to cover his ass (or that of his organization) by saying that the culprit was budget cuts, rather than the conscious choice of people making budget allocations.

  61. It’s a stretch to say that giving x additional dollars would lead directly to a vaccine for Ebola. I want to know what manner of lobbying for increased funding people would find acceptable though.
    I’d say the CDC has a better argument to make about reduced funding leaving it hard pressed to respond to an outbreak like this.

  62. Anonymous says:

    @60: How do you test the efficacy of a vaccine when you have only a small outbreak and no idea who it will spread to?
    Do you vaccinate the entire population, or just intentionally try to infect a few people with ebola and see if they are resistant?

  63. Hap says:

    “Look at the things we’ve done”, probably. It’s been hard to put numbers on the financial consequences of research, but it seems like the achievements of basic research on our lives are probably significant. NIH works to understand lots of things that, even if it isn’t finding the drugs, help to make them possible (and the money and jobs they bring, and the lives they save) to lots of people. Particularly to Congress (with lots of older people) that would seem like a useful argument.
    In contrast, promising what you weren’t trying to deliver and couldn’t have if you had tried to seems like a bad rhetorical tactic. If you somehow induced Congress to believe you, you’d have to deliver what you can’t. (sarcasm)I’m also sure Congresspeople don’t mind at all being blamed in public for Ebola problems, and so blaming them for not funding something that would not have been effective while embarrassing them in public could not possibly bring any untoward consequences. (/sarcasm) So if they will be angry with you whether or not they believe you, and are unlikely to believe you, well, it seems like a whoopsie to me.

  64. DLIB says:

    The NIH needs new leadership. He is a lip service public servant. I saw him in a talk give a pass to a speaker who presented a scatter plot of unreproducible data…not a peep from the director. A person that is presumably championing reproducibility in science. He’s too polite/nice to be effective. We need a C. Everett in there or a David Kessler

  65. Matt D says:

    For those who don’t see why this is a big deal, here is an example of the obvious consequence of his statement, a letter from Rep. Kingston (linked from my name, above):
    “I read with much curiosity your statement about an Ebola vaccine…Could you please provide the Committee with details on this statement including:
    * A list of research proposals submitted to NIH for ebola vaccine development in the past decade that was not funded due to lack of available funds.
    * A list of ongoing Ebola vaccine research including the date of funding and amount of funding for each vaccine.
    * How much of the $10 billion in Stimulus funding provided to the NIH was put toward vaccine development? If none, why?
    * If HHS Secretary did not apply the PHS Evaluation fund reduction, or TAP, to the NIH budget, would these funds help to advance Ebola research?
    * Have you requested the removal of the PHS Evaluation fund reduction, or TAP, to better insure sufficient NIH funds?
    * How much would it cost and how long would it take to develop a vaccine now?”

  66. Hap says:

    That’s a pretty sane list of questions for someone to ask Dr. Collins.

  67. DannoH says:

    @10 – “If only my grandmother had wheels she would be a wagon.” Classic Montgomery Scott line!

  68. Anonymous says:

    There is an Ebola vaccine effective in primates that should have been developed in humans:
    http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v11/n7/abs/nm1258.html
    Problem? Money. Always comes back to money.
    NY Times has more on this topic.

  69. steve says:

    #65, Matt – The answers to your questions are here; scroll down to see the chart. http://tinyurl.com/oert6yl

  70. wlm says:

    Well, after reading Derek’s post, I expected to agree with him. However, unless Collins is engaging in more than mere hyperbole (not that I like to see that from a scientist), I’m not so sure.
    Collins is quoted as saying:
    “The NIH began working on a vaccine for Ebola in 2001. We have steadily pursued that effort over these last 13 years, hoping that by the time a big outbreak occurred we would be ready for it. That vaccine has now been in animal trials, shown to be highly effective. But as of this summer, when the outbreak really began to catch fire, had not yet quite reached the point of a phase 1 clinical trial.
    We worked in record time with enormous assistance from our colleagues at FDA to speed up the process. And last week, the first volunteers at the NIH clinical center were injected with this vaccine in a phase 1 trial to determine whether in fact it is going to be safe. And in another two or three months we will know that, and then hopefully be in a position to begin a phase 2 trial in the places where it’s most needed in Africa.
    But I have to tell you, if we had not gone through this 10-year decline in the support of biomedical research, we would be a year or two ahead of where we are now.”
    Now, according to the Huffington Post story, NIAID’s budget has decreased from $4.30 billion in FY 2004 to $4.25 billion in FY 2013, *not including inflation*. So that’s a significant drop in purchasing power. If Collins is correct that NIH was working on their own Ebola vaccine program over a ~13 year period, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that substantial budget cuts (for NIAID) would have caused a significant delay in the vaccine program.
    And again, we’re not talking about some hypothetical wished for vaccine candidate, but one that the NIH itself has been developing, according to Collins, a program that has been successful enough that it is now starting clinical trials.
    Normally, I’m first in line to criticize hyperbolic statements about future progress, such as Eschenbach’s statements about cancer, or the hype over stem cells. And I think Collins has oversold genomics in the past.
    But in this case, if his statements about the NIH Ebola vaccine program are correct, he may have a point.

  71. Anonymous says:

    @69: There is so much noise and volatility in the annual spending on this niche area that it’s impossible to draw any conclusions, except that the overall trend is not significantly negative over the past 10 years.

  72. steve says:

    #71, what the graph shows, in answer to the questions #69 posed, is that when NIH had money, like with the stimulus, Ebola spending went up. When it didn’t, Ebola spending went down. Collins’ simple statement was that if they had more money the vaccine would have been ready sooner. I see no reason to doubt that’s true. Doesn’t mean that money would necessarily have meant positive results, but we would have known the answer a lot sooner.

  73. Anonymous says:

    BTW Dana Milbank had much more insightful take. When that’s the case, it’s time to rethink how you spend your time.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-making-ebola-a-partisan-issue/2014/10/17/53227888-55fd-11e4-892e-602188e70e9c_story.html

  74. Anonymous says:

    BTW Dana Milbank had much more insightful take. When that’s the case, it’s time to rethink how you spend your time.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-making-ebola-a-partisan-issue/2014/10/17/53227888-55fd-11e4-892e-602188e70e9c_story.html

  75. Francesca Collins says:

    If my salary was higher, I’d have paid off the house sooner. Right. Or, I could have made it a priority to pay off the house sooner with the salary I had, at the opportunity cost of other priorities, like feeding my children.

  76. Curt F. says:

    If this Ebola crisis had never happened, would the NIH’s budget be lower? If not, then Francis Collins has no point and is a whiny cry-baby. But if so, then maybe he has a point.

  77. NUchemist says:

    as a graduate student I see massive waste on a daily basis in academia. the ship would definitely be run much tighter if you work for a privately owned company that needs to produce products people need in exchange for cash.

  78. Anonymous says:

    @72: Steve – No, that’s just random noise. Or what “caused” the very similar bumps and troughs in other years?

  79. steve says:

    The bumps and troughs in other years are not the same magnitude as the spike that occured with the stimulus. NIH funding goes up and down as does the quality of grants submitted so obviously there are going to be bumps and troughs. But the question the congressman was quoted as asking was whether some of the stimulus funding went to Ebola and obviously it did.

  80. steve says:

    #73, thanks for the link. All the cynics here should read the whole article. Just to excerpt one paragraph, which supports what I’ve been saying: But while NIH funding grew steadily over the years, it leveled off at $28 billion in 2004 and was at $29.3 billion in 2013. When you factor in medical inflation, NIH’s purchasing power is down 23 percent over that period.

  81. DS says:

    I had a talk on the same subject with one of the senior and distinguished professors that I work with. He says that he owes his career to the Soviets and for their launch of “Sputnik” in late 50’s. He was coming from a poor family and would not have money to pay for his education. To catch up with Soviet Union the US government increased the budgets for research and gave out fellowships to people like him to pay through his college education. Now, with the current budget cuts that make it very hard for a young scientist to secure funding and makes them leave the academia, he hopes that the new “Ebola threat” could be the “new Sputnik” and drive more money to research. Otherwise, most of the young and bright scientists would have to go work for industry. I am not sure what kind of future will the academic research face in this case.

  82. anon says:

    Perhaps this relates to this article:
    Drug Discovery Today Volume 19, Number 8
    August 2014
    It is not only government that is finding it difficult to develop NMEs.

  83. KIETH says:

    Anonymous, so if Derek disapproves of the NIH program (at least in part) he should then, to be totally consistent, eschew all government aid to research he is involved in? that’s like saying that if you object to your car licensing fees you should not drive your car on the public roads.

  84. anon says:

    don’t hate the player, hate the game

  85. jbosch says:

    @81,
    I think the picture is on the wall already. The brain drain is inevitable and will happen. The shortsightedness by those in power will lead to a depletion of innovation in academics and industry in the longterm as they first have to go through an education before heading of to industry. It’s a vicious cycle the errors made in the past 3-5 years will reach their peak in about 2-3 years from now.
    Universities will try to compensate for lack of NIH funding through higher enrollment of master and PhD students, quality of education will go down further and most likely overheads will increase to feed the administrative body. As somebody pointed out earlier 70-80% overhead on grants for what ? Investigators are really working for the administration to secure their jobs it seems like.
    It would be interesting to create a graph of Nobel laureates and their countries where they made the discovery. I think a trend in shifting away from American laureates in the next years will be visible.

  86. luigi says:

    Bullshit is all Collins has ever delivered – from grandiose projections for outcomes on the Human Genome Map in Nature in 2003, to NCATS, to the support of Obama’s delusional initiative in the AD area with “a cure by 2025” to an inability to ensure that tax payer funded grant related research is relevant and reproducible – see also @14 -if it really is Craig – adding his view.
    Collins is typical of the current generation of Geoffrey Beene “Superstars of Science” all style and zero substance. Under Collins’ leadership an “NIH expert” has become synonymous with “hack”. And Collins is delusional enough to be lobbying for a Nobel prize – dream on St. Francis.

  87. BenderTheRobot says:

    Kudos to you Derek, for calling it like you see it. Your strength in not succumbing to peer pressure to regurgitate the party line is refreshing. Take care to be selective in letting people in power and their followers know they aren’t in control of your viewpoint.

  88. Gg says:

    Did St. Francis break out his acoustic guitar to win ya over

  89. Last Week WHO announced that now 10,000 people infected with ebola out of which nearly 4500 died how come any of the research organization did n go ahead with Ebola vaccine research and only doint it more off now because it as out braked to most countires

  90. gdfg says:

    The man who voted for George W Bush thinks he can blog about politics? Give me a break. Just stick to the bench, Lowe.

  91. Hap says:

    @76: If you raised NIH’s funding by X%, then unless Collins was asking for more money for Ebola specifically (or infectious diseases in general), then it would have gotten X% more money. Since he didn’t appear to be asking for more Ebola money, it would have taken a lot of increased funds to NIH to have added a substantive amount of money to Ebola research, most of which would have gone elsewhere. It would also mean not doing something else with the extra money given to NIH (given that we or our representatives don’t want to raise taxes). I imagine people could invest more if you doubled their pay, but most of the money from the increase probably won’t be invested (depending on income level, spending habits, and debt) – doubling people’s pay would be an inefficient way to increase investment/savings rates, and so unless you were looking for some other effect from the increase, it would be an inefficient way to increase savings and investment.
    NIAID had lots of money and work on Ebola, but I am assuming that Rep. Kingston is asking questions to which he knows the answers. In the lack of evidence that Collins was going to ask for money specifically for Ebola, saying more money to NIH would have accelerated Ebola vaccine development is “truthy”, and saying that it would have accelerated Ebola vaccine development by a year or two is probably untrue.

  92. mark says:

    @90: As you can see from the graph, GWB almost doubled the NIH budget in his first term, while one-and-a-half terms into O’s tenure, we see…

  93. genome wars says:

    We would only have an Ebola vaccine by now if Venter had gotten into the arena and challenged the public sector!

  94. genome wars says:

    We would only have an Ebola vaccine by now if Venter had gotten into the arena and challenged the public sector!

  95. anonymous says:

    More than 6 years ago I was working for a CMO. One of our clients was developing an anti-Ebola drug, and we were stockpiling the starting materials. The trials in monkeys were very encouraging. There was even some data in humans. The drug was a good candidate for futher development. Then the Federal government cut funding (because of the dire, dire need to immediately wipe out budget deficit – do you happen to remember who was trumpeting that cause?)and further development did not happen. Instead there were job cuts at the anti-Ebola drug company. There were massive job cuts at my company (about 1/3 of the staff lost their jobs). And now the state of this particular anti-Ebola project is more or less where it was 6 or so years ago. I am not saying we’d have an approved drug today. But there could have been something in Phase III – and wouldn’t it have been handy?
    This is not specifically about vaccine development or NIH. But having experienced what I’ve experienced, I’m pretty receptive to the general message that Collins is trying to send in this particular case.

  96. Lyle Langley says:

    @77, NUChemist…
    “as a graduate student I see massive waste on a daily basis in academia. the ship would definitely be run much tighter if you work for a privately owned company that needs to produce products people need in exchange for cash.”
    Right…there is no waste in industry. Sure…
    Not saying there isn’t waste in academia, but speaking from someone that has worked in both areas, there is as much waste in industry (privately owned or publicly owned) as academics, if not more because there budgets are bigger. Let’s not pile on academics, when waste is clearly an issue across all districts.

  97. Biff says:

    Steve – thanks for the “Those of you working in large pharma don’t seem to have a clue what it’s like having to work off of grants” remark. You might be surprised to learn how it feels to work in a large pharma when it retrenches and makes absolute, non-inflation adjusted cuts in its budget year over year. You might also be surprised to learn what it feels like when these cuts are truly large cuts, rather than large cuts in the rate of expected growth. Next, you might try working in a small or midrange company, where there is even less of a cushion for research.
    In any event, expecting government-sourced research funding to grow at a steady rate, year over year, independent of the economy and politics is as ignorant as expecting log phase cell culture growth to continue forever. It ain’t gonna happen.

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