Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, believes that we would have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for the past ten years of flat budgets for life science research:
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.’ 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. (Source: Huffington Post)
I do understand that Collins needs to be a champion of life sciences research, but to promise that a vaccine would be ready by now is overly optimistic. Vaccines are not easy to design, as the efforts to make an HIV-1 vaccine illustrate. There is no guarantee that even unlimited resources would have produced an approved vaccine. However, more money might have allowed clinical trials of the Ebola virus vaccine candidates currently beginning phase I testing.
I believe that Collins should take the Ebola virus outbreak as an opportunity to emphasize the need for continuous, strong support of basic life sciences research. Michael Eisen, who is particularly annoyed with Collins’ statement, is right about what Collins should have said:
But what really bothers me the most about this is that, 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, and that 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.
Don’t get me wrong. I get what Collins is trying to do. I just think it’s a huge mistake. Every time I see testimony from NIH officials to Congress, they are engaged in this kind of pandering – talking about how concerned they are about [insert pet disease of person asking question] or that and how, if only they could get more money, we’d be able to take make amazing progress. But guess what? It hasn’t worked. The NIH budget is still being slashed. It’s time for the people who run the biomedical research enterprise in this country to make basic research the center of their pitch for funding. Collins had a huge opportunity to do that here, but he blew it.