Would we have an Ebola virus vaccine if not for NIH cuts?

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • David K 15 October 2014, 3:21 pm

    The lack of an Ebola vaccine is a variant of the tragedy of the commons. There is no financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines until it is too late. Even if funding for the NIH were increased, I strongly doubt that an Ebola vaccine would have been developed without specific funding allocated.

    It is clearly in the public’s interest to have vaccines developed for Ebola and many other infectious diseases (coronaviruses, anyone?) such that if an outbreak occurs production can be immediately ramped up without having to go through clinical trials and regulatory hurdles. The government needs to specifically allocate funding and commission vaccine development through contracts with pharmaceutical companies for low-probability, high-risk diseases such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, coronaviruses, etc.

  • profvrr 15 October 2014, 3:27 pm

    I’m hoping we’ll learn a lesson from this outbreak, and be ready for vaccines against a variety of deadly viruses that we don’t think are important enough to warrant a vaccine. Because the moral is, you can never predict where a virus is going to spread. I suggest Marburg, Lassa, Sars, Mers, Nipah, Hendra. Probably others should be there as well.

  • David K 15 October 2014, 3:48 pm

    I totally agree. In addition, I just want to rephrase what Mike Eisen said: while it’s important to have a flourishing biomedical research landscape, increasing funding is no guarantee that vaccines would immediately be developed. To create these vaccines that you’ve mentioned, I argue that the government should fund these projects specifically and commission them in a contractual manner with companies that have the resources already in place to develop them, such as Sanofi, Novartis, BMS, Novavax, etc. As far as I know, there aren’t any fundamental biological hurdles to develop vaccines for many of the viruses that you mentioned, just political ones.

  • Steve 15 October 2014, 4:13 pm

    I think for it to work for such viruses the government needs to have a standard system for coordinating with pharma. The reality is both vaccine candidates and ZMapp comes from government labs (USA and Canada), not universities. Pharma isn’t going to pay for all the underlying research, but we need them to bring it up to production scale and run large trials. Trying to set up those agreements in a rush slows things down.

  • CRS_DrPH 15 October 2014, 5:35 pm

    Thanks, doc! That is a great wish-list, and I’d also be happy for further advances on a “universal” flu vaccine, which looks promising at the early stages. Unfortunately, our priorities got all goofed up with the shift from pandemic H5N1 influenza preparedness to (in my mind) unfounded concern about bioterrorism. This is a depressing article about the waste of money on PPE for an influenza pandemic that might yet appear: http://www.govexec.com/defense/2014/09/homeland-security-department-not-prepared-pandemic/95192/

  • Per 16 October 2014, 3:56 am

    Just some food for thought: this pertinent point, published on Oct 10 by B Dodet et al in International Health (doi:10.1093/inthealth/ihu071) highlights that a vaccine does not solve all the problems:
    The current outbreak of Ebola virus disease has mobilized the international community
    against this deadly disease. However, rabies, another deadly disease, is greatly affecting the African continent, with an estimated 25 000 deaths every year. And yet, the disease can be prevented by a vaccine, if necessary with immunoglobulin, even when administered after exposure to the rabies virus. Rabies victims die because of neglect and ignorance, because they are not aware of these life-saving biologicals, or because they cannot access them or do not have the money to pay for them. Breaking the cycle of indifference of rabies deaths in humans in Africa should be a priority of governments, international organizations and all stakeholders involved.

  • profvrr 16 October 2014, 9:56 am

    I agree, and this sentiment was voiced by Tom Solomon in our discussion of this issue: http://youtu.be/XAPuwdlu0KI. Even if you have a vaccine, does not mean you will be able to use it effectively.

  • pk 17 October 2014, 2:46 pm

    I doubt the current crop of researchers in the West can do any better with more funding. Many of them are not scientists anymore.

  • pk 17 October 2014, 4:30 pm

    I agree, too, even if there were a vaccine, you would encounter people like me who scientifically question their efficacy. Can you tell me how the 25000 death figure was arrived at? Did they find tissue samples with negri bodies to confirm rabies or did they use the fraudulent DFA test or is this number just thrown out for special effect? Why do we need governments to get involved here? Can’t drug companies directly market to people and face litigation risk if their products don’t work?

  • pk 17 October 2014, 4:34 pm

    As a taxpayer, I am not going to fund any government or pharmaceutical research. Go and ask for voluntary donations.