EBOLA, ETC. ; THE TOLL OF BUDGET CUTS AND INCONSISTENCY ON RESEARCH
the lower grant success rate disincentivizes researches to pursue research that doesn’t fit the government’s priorities or runs the risk of failure.
Of course, now, Ebola vaccine and therapy research is a high priority, and some near-finished products have beenfast-tracked — like the ZMapp drug used to treat two American missionaries who contracted Ebola overseas. (ZMapp has yet to be produced in large enough quantities to treat people in Africa.) In September, the NIH started human trials on an Ebola vaccine that was in development.
Experts noted that these stages — human trials and pharmaceutical production — are often the most expensive parts of research, and clinical trials often fail. As a result, this is where a lot of research — successful up to that point — gets tabled, particularly if it isn’t of high priority.
Additionally, conducting Ebola research is especially difficult and expensive because only a few facilities are fully equipped to handle it at a certain phase, Cross said. Those labs need to beBiosafety Level 4 — the highest biosafety designation — because it’s such a dangerous disease with no widely available therapy. According to the Federation of American Scientists, there are only about a dozen BSL-4 labs in the United States.
What about the big pharmaceutical manufacturers? Turns out they don’t necessarily pick up the slack when NIH funding is tight.
Major pharmaceutical companies want to make drugs that are going to make money, but the highest demand for Ebola drugs is in low-income countries that don’t have buy the most vaccines, said Alexandra Stewart, a professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.
The U.S. government, on the other hand, needs Ebola drugs as a matter of biodefense and public safety, so they end up being the primary financiers.
Some advocates of further budget cuts for government agencies (such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.) have criticized the NIH for not spending its money expediently. Rand, for example, pointed to NIH research grants for an “origami condom.”
David Sanders, a Purdue University professor who has studied Ebola vaccines, said many of these critics are not in a position to judge those researchers, who go through the same vigorous application process as everyone else. The research might seem unimportant, but it could have major value years from now.
“A lot of the work that seems obscure — just reading it out of context makes people think it’s not worth doing,” Sanders said. “These things are peer-reviewed, and people find them important.”