NIH Director Francis Collins’ ridiculous “We would have had an Ebola vaccine if the NIH were fully funded” meme

Almost as soon as the African Ebola epidemic hit the headlines, NIH Director Francis Collins was making the rounds arguing that we would have had an Ebola vaccine by now, if only Congress hadn’t slashed the NIH budget.

Lest you think I’m taking his words out of context, here is what he said to a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Roundtable Discussion on Health and Medicine Issues on September 10, 2014:

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. And think about the difference that would make, had we in 2014 been in the position to distribute rapidly tens of thousands of doses, in collaboration with our colleagues at GSK, of this vaccine, how much different would this be and how many lives would have been saved.

I read this testimony at the time, and was taken aback by this statement, but I was a bit reluctant to undermine efforts to increase NIH funding, no matter how cynical they might be. It was, after all, Congressional testimony, and one can forgive a bit of exaggeration in pursuit of remedying the horrible financial situation the NIH (and, thus its grantees and would be grantees).

But now Collins has gone public with this claim, in an article in the Huffington Post, and so 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.

Second, let’s assume Collins is right. That the only reason we don’t have an Ebola vaccine today was that the project wasn’t properly funded. If this is true, than one should rightly ask why this wasn’t given a higher priority. The potential for a serious Ebola outbreak has been there for a long time. And 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 it was really on the crux of delivering a vaccine. So there is an element of choice here too that Collins is downplaying.

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.

 

 

 

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40 Comments

  1. Posted October 13, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Despite the controversial title of your article, I think you’re making the very important point that Dr. Collins should have also emphasized a broader, sustained, and general support of basic science. That doesn’t make his comments BS, you’re simply arguing this is only one example of many, and that more support is needed for basic science. I am sure he agrees, and maybe he did make that point too.

    • Posted October 13, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      The statement that “we would have had an Ebola vaccine if there had been more money” is bullshit. It’s at best speculation, at worst fabrication.

      • Posted October 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        I agree about the uncertainty of outcome, which in fact argues for more NIH funds, not fewer, but politicians often have trouble accepting

      • Uri
        Posted October 13, 2014 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

        I agree it seems like speculation, but fabrication is a strong claim to make. It would be interesting to see if Collins could produce data to support his claim. Either way, I’m willing to cut him slack for being forced to deal with politicians (and by extension their constituents) who don’t really know how science works.

        All that said, I 100% agree that Collins consistently drops the ball in explaining how essential basic research is. My impression is that he has bought a bit too much into the “translational” hype himself.

  2. Posted October 13, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Despite the controversial title of your article, I think you’re making the very important point that Dr. Collins should have also emphasized a broader, sustained, and general support of basic science. That doesn’t make his comments BS, you’re simply arguing this is only one example of many, and that more support is needed for basic science. I am sure he agrees, and maybe he did make that point too. (then there’s the “science is uncertain” part, which I think he could also make, to argue for more funds in order for one of many approaches to succeed)

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Agreed. One needs a ‘broader, sustained, and general support of basic science’ and the vaccines will come of that.

  3. Jim
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely! He is completely full of shit and the worst kind of opportunist. If it was a defense contractor saying the same thing, no one would bat an eye at calling them out, but since it is the NIH, they get a pass at this idiotic claim.

    • Posted October 13, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      The evidence suggests the reverse is the case: defense contractors get a pass on ridiculous claims, while the NIH gets fact-checked.

  4. mat
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    You have captured exactly what is bothering me about Francis Collins’ statements.

  5. Dave
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I worry for the future of the NIH with this guy at the helm. His PR skills are so bad that he is doing more harm than good.

  6. Comradde PhysioProff
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    You and Collins are both full of shitte, because the question is whether there were Ebola grants that missed the payline and had potential for developing a vaccine that would have been funded under a plausibly looser payline.

    • Posted October 13, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      I would instead wonder if there have been funding announcements for Ebola programs. I think Collins is leaving himself open to having congress target money for specific things (and not other things), which is not how you get basic research to give you breakthroughs in unanticipated areas.

  7. Posted October 13, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I rarely tote the party line, and no one has ever accused me of being an apologist for administrators. I’ve been occasionally pissed off at the apparent funding priorities of the NIH over the years, but I have to disagree with the take that Francis Collins is full of it. My take is that he is using hyperbole to underscore a point, and where you and I might have said “MAY” have had a vaccine (and for that matter, we may already have, (thanks Canada)

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ebola-outbreak-1st-human-trials-of-canadian-vaccine-start-in-u-s-1.2796859

    There is a certain goal Collins is now seeking, which is he is challenging lawmakers to increase appropriations for immediate work on solutions for Ebola, including now possible, exact, knowable steps on unfinished work on vaccines, such as enumerating antibodies from survivors, and a return to pre-cuts budgetary levels. There are lines to be read between.

    I agree especially with the observation that people use such claims, for example, that more military funding is needed for national defense, with nary a call for fact-checking… the point is taken, so to speak. Everyone knows that throwing money at a problem is rarely an answer. It’s what you do with it. Ebola will lead to permanent changes in our biomedical research and medical practices.

    And yet we sit, especially in PA, hurting due to cuts at multiple levels. Our enlightened Gov. Corbett slashed state funding to science & education, handing roughly the same amount to frackers as tax breaks, and nationwide we see our colleagues leaving academia by the dozen, in search of greener pastures… where, farming?

    Opportunist? Poster, Really. Inappropriate. Where some see opportunity, others see need. Can you really say we should not clamor for funding?

    The energy about this post is all wrong. No, it’s not time for divisiveness. It’s time for action.

    Like this guy. He’s not even an expert. But he’s trying.

    http://www.retinaeyedoctor.com/2014/10/ebola-facts-what-do-you-know/

    Check out https://www.crowdrise.com/CureEbola to directly help a worthy effort from our colleague, Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire.

    May I suggest we get back to science, for example by watching her fascinating YouTube lecture on how insidious Ebola is in it use of multifunctional “transformer” proteins

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8IFC8GQvNE

    Perhaps the frustrations come from a feeling of helplessness. We really do need to act in concert. Let’s not forget who the enemy is here. There are number of damning conspiracy theories and a ridiculous mythos that add detracting noise to the conversation and increase distrust to no particular end. I’m sorry to say, this post and certainly a number of comments here, smack full of noise.

    With devotion,
    An until recently reasonably well, and long-time, employed bioinformatician.

    JLW

  8. Basic researcher
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    You conclude that because pandering “hasn’t worked” (according to you), pitching basic research WILL work? What kind of logic is that? Why do you think that?

    Many Americans I know are not interested in basic research in the slightest and never will be. At best you are telling Collins to embark on an impossibly long path of educating the general public about how science works. Why? Why do you conclude that would be better for NIH funding prospects than pandering to a very real fear of Ebola?

    • Posted October 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

      The evidence that pandering isn’t working is manifest. For example, where are the new funds to develop Ebola vaccines?

      Yes, few Americans would say they are interested in basic research. But that’s because we all – including Collins – do a crappy job of explaining why it’s important. If you say “Do you support basic research?” people might say no, but if you said “Do you support basic research aimed at understanding how viruses work, how our bodies detect and fight them off, and how we might make that process more effective?” I suspect you’d get a more positive answer.

      From my point of view, we’ve let a deep cynicism about Congress and the public infect us, and render us unwilling to stand up and justify our pursuits. Maybe the cynicism is warranted. But I don’t think so. I think the public, on the whole, would support basic research if we stopped trying to sell them on hype and instead made a better case for why, if they want new vaccines, diagnoses and treatments, it’s important that we support basic research.

      • Basic researcher
        Posted October 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        As of 2013, 48% of Republicans don’t even believe in evolution. That’s up from 39% in 2009.
        http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/

        Get real, Francis Collins alone can’t improve science literacy / improve public opinion about basic research. If you want to change public opinion about basic research, you should be on a soapbox about K12 education, not about the value of basic research at the highest echelons of science.

        The best Francis Collins can do, in his current position, is raise a little extra funding for NIH. Maybe some of that extra funding can go to science outreach, K12 education, etc, which could nudge science literacy somewhat.

        • Marker
          Posted October 27, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

          you see hicks who believe in a religion, I see GMO, vaccines, animal testing, nuclear power yada yada yada.

          K12 education in this country is a mess, and by extension the passing on of basic scientific literacy. I’d suggest ways to improve it, but most democrats kowtow to the status quo, so it won’t matter…

    • GM
      Posted October 13, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

      That the public (not just in the US, the same is just as true everywhere else around the world) is not interested in basic research is 100% true.

      And one can even argue that reframing it from “basic research” to “basic research into the biology of mammalian viruses” is not a 100% commitment to basic research either — from a purely scientific perspective filoviruses are just as interesting as viruses infecting archaea, eukaryotic phytoplancton, etc.

      But how is that going to change unless we do in fact embark on the very long road towards reeducating the public?

      More importantly do we really have a choice not to try that? It is extremely likely that under a business as usual scenario and unless the public is indeed dramatically reeducated there will be noting that we could recognize as modern science a century or two from now, possibly a lot sooner, with most of the knowledge we have worked so hard to obtain over the last few centuries lost.

    • qaz
      Posted October 14, 2014 at 4:09 am | Permalink

      The idea that the American public is not interested in basic research is absolutely wrong. Look at the success of Cosmos. Look at the success of someone like a Stephen Jay Gould or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Go to a science museum in a major city. You’ll see it absolutely full of kids and their parents. The American people love basic science.

      I’ve started doing a lot of outreach over the last decade. My research is basic science, but has enormous implications for clinical consequences that people are really interested in. But when I go give my TEDx talk or my what-I-do talk to a clinical population or to a high school class, the responses are never about “how does your research cure my parent/sibling/friend?” It’s always, “why does it work THAT way?”

      Sure there are lots of people who don’t like science. But that’s not the majority of the American public. More importantly, the people who don’t like science aren’t going to be swayed by a calculation of cost-benefit returns (let alone a WRONG one). We need to reach the rest of the American public, who really are interested in basic science.

      • GM
        Posted October 14, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        I interact with real people too. I don’t see much to back up your assertions.

        Sure, there is an element of excitement about certain topics, but it’s just that – limited to a small number of sexy fields, usually the ones that are close to hot technologies and the ones that have a certain sci-fi feel to them.

        Try talking to people about some other not so sexy fields (say, for example, the taxonomy of some obscure group) and you will see how little enthusiasm they show. I have very hard time getting even my own parents excited about what I do and I do not work on the systematics of trombidiform mites or something of the sort, I work on a lot sexier topics.

        The same thing happens if you try to get even a little bit technical (i.e. including but not limited to anything having to do with math). And the subject of science as a method vs science as a collection of facts and a technology development enterprise is basically impossible to communicate.

        You can explain my experiences with my inability to talk about science in a way that gets people excited. I am most definitely no Neil deGrasse Tyson but I do think I have the ability to get down to the core of people’s attitudes towards things, and I know what I see at the core of how they look at science. They get excited about it in the same way they get excited about movies with a lot of special effects, i.e. largely because of the gee-whiz factor and the occasional mystic esoteric of some of the subjects and the genius cult (And myth) that is so popular in our society. That’s a great first step and it’s where most kids start but it’s almost never built upon for the rest of their lives with the exception of the few that go on to become professional scientists (many of which, sadly, do not go to far beyond that either).

        We cannot talk about scientific literacy and a truly positive attitude towards science unless one has completely internalized and adopted the scientific worldview. This is a very very distant goal as far as the general public is concerned and is the major reason why we’re in such a mess right now as a species – because the vast majority of people, including the politicians (who come primarily from law, economics and business backgrounds), do not see science as providing the basis for their understanding of reality. Instead they see it as an occasionally interesting exotic activity reserved for the geeks and nerds that produces cool technogadgets but is otherwise not worth spending too much time thinking about or listening to if what it has to say results in even the slightest personal discomfort.

        • poke
          Posted October 14, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          I completely agree with qaz on this one.

          People are not fundamentally disinterested in science. In addition to the examples mentioned above, look at how engaged people were with nate silver’s election prediction stuff. Presented correctly, it really is possible to get through to people, and the topic (statistics, in silver’s case) need not be inherently “sexy.”

          I think this kind of outreach is something we should all be working at; I’m as guilty as most others in this respect, but I am making a committed effort to improve. I think we all should be.

          The whining I’m reading about this is precisely of the same sort that comes up when people talk about getting basic v.s applied research funded. Invariably there’s this population that wants to argue their research is just too basic, too esoteric, too pure to possibly have any application, and the mere implication that it might (or should) is met with indignation.

          • GM
            Posted October 14, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

            You completely misunderstood what I said.

            I am highlighting the very real real-world importance of worldviews and I am pointing out how being intrigued by some scientific field is not at all the same thing as having a scientific understanding of the world around you. Even many people working professionally in science don’t have it. That’s the real problem.

            Unless you catch kids early and get them on the right path, once they become adults it is extremely, extremely difficult to change the very nonscientific worldviews that our culture instills in the, not matter what framing tricks you apply.

        • qaz
          Posted October 14, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          I didn’t say it was easy. Nor did I say that they had a deep understanding of the science. (Actually, the clinical patients do tend to understand the science – as one colleague told me “no one learns cardiology as quickly as a heart attack patient” or their relatives.) But I find that I can often find a TED-level “gee-whiz” “that’s cool” excitement among both clinical audiences and people I randomly meet on airplanes. Let’s be honest about the Ebola thing as well, Collins isn’t trying to explain to congress (or the American people) the complexities of Ebola treatment. He’s giving them an elevator-talk cost-benefit analysis.

          As I started to do more of this outreach, my university asked me to attend a “how to get donations” seminar they were running for their faculty. It was geared to medical professionals, and didn’t completely apply to me, but I found some interesting things to take away. The most important one was don’t dismiss their emotion. To communicate excitement, don’t diminish your own excitement. When someone tells you “what you do is amazing”, don’t diminish it with a shrug and “It’s all in a day’s work”. Translate your own excitement into “yeah. What I do is total science fiction. Except it’s not. It’s real. And that is just damn cool.” If what you do is so boring that you might as well be flipping burgers, then you’ll never communicate outside of your field. Presumably, you do the science you do because you find it exciting. What is it about your work that is exciting? What makes you come in to work each day?

  9. Gina D.
    Posted October 14, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I think you are being too fussy about the timelines in ebola vaccination. Even with the uncertainty of research, science projects still have timelines, benchmarks, and goals. If there was, hypothetically, a goal to develop an ebola vaccine by 2014 and it was pushed back to 2016 then I would consider his statement true. It is a simplification, yes. But at the same time it holds congress accountable for their cuts in spending in a very direct way that their constituents can understand, which in itself has a great deal of value.

    Regarding prioritization, I think you are being a little hard on the NIH. A massive ebola outbreak, like big hurricanes and earthquakes, is one of those black swan events that is notoriously difficult to prepare for. Of course it was possible one would be coming, but every outbreak so far was rapidly contained and did not affect the US. A vaccine is expensive and you may never need it, so how do you prioritize that over fighting a disease like breast cancer? Every decision they make is hard.

    Dr. Collins can make all the statements he wants about basic science, but only C-Span viewers are going to hear them because they are not going to make it onto the news. And he has limited time. And if their constituents don’t hear it there isn’t any reason for Congress to act so is it not just a complete waste of time?

    I think you make some good points, but perhaps you have too much deontology and not enough utilitarianism.

  10. DrugMonkey
    Posted October 14, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you all have trouble interesting your friends, family and neighbors because you do actually work on stuff nobody gives a flying fig about? and it IS actually irrelevant to them? just asking. I mean, I have never met a single person that isn’t interested in talking about my stuff…

    • Gina D.
      Posted October 15, 2014 at 4:53 am | Permalink

      So what? You need to talk to millions of people to affect policy, not thousands.

      • qaz
        Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

        One of the things that the anti-scientists achieved is that they started with convincing thousands and then very slowly (over 30+ years) have achieved an empire convincing millions. We have to remember that these public opinion worlds change very slowly.

  11. Basic researcher
    Posted October 14, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    As of 2013, 48% of Republicans don’t even believe in evolution. That’s up from 39% in 2009.
    http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/

    Francis Collins alone can’t change public opinion about basic research. If you’re really motivated to change public opinion on anything science-related, you should be on a soapbox about K12 education, not about what Francis Collins is saying to Congress about Ebola.

    The best Francis Collins can do, in his current position, is raise a little extra funding for NIH. Maybe some of that extra funding can go to science outreach, K12 education, etc, which could nudge science literacy somewhat.

    I think implicit in Collins’ remarks is “you should give us more money in general, so that we’re better prepared for the next big bio-problem that hits us.” That seems like a far better thing for Collins to be saying to Congress than “yay basic research!!”

    • Posted October 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but Collins doesn’t get a pass just because Republicans don’t believe in evolution (he doesn’t either, by the way – he claims God created the universe and set it in motion so that humans would be created), or because Congress has slashed the NIH budget. He has presided over a major shift in NIH priorities away from basic research and towards translational research. If his testimony was an isolated case of cynically exploiting the news to put pressure on Congress to increase funding, I’d hold my nose and let him try. But it’s not. He said this about Ebola because he believes it.

      • GM
        Posted October 14, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        I want to wholeheartedly congratulate you for saying this (that Collins does is a creationist, just not of the young earth kind) openly. Few dare to do that.

        Also, by the same criteria, it’s not 48% that deny evolution – 48% are the young-earth creationists. The theistic evolution creationists are another 35-40% so the total comes to >80%.

    • qaz
      Posted October 16, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      No one was saying Collins should just say “yay, basic research”, but rather that Collins should use this as a teaching moment to explain the basic research to translational research to clinical consequence cycle. (Except, of course, as with Zerhouni, there is no evidence that Collins understands the basic research to translational research to clinical consequence cycle.)

      No one wins by chasing Republican loser policies down the rabbit hole. The Democrats have demonstrated this definitively over the last thirty years. What we need are counter arguments that provide a truly alternative view and not just “republican light”. The problem is that Collins’ argument is going to backfire in trying to convince the rest of the population.

      PS. We should remember that in terms of actual population statistics Republicans (even counting “republican-leaning independents”) are significantly less than half of the American population, and that number is declining daily. So, saying “48% of Republicans” don’t believe in evolution is not necessarily the American population we need to reach.

    • mark
      Posted October 24, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Just saying “doesn’t believe in (young earth) evolution” doesn’t necessarily correlate to “not interested in medicine or basic research”. At least one church I’m aware of runs a major university and medical school with significant research despite their adherence to a strictly literal biblical creation.

  12. Posted October 15, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Dr Collins had not been in such great shape since the press hype around the human genome. That made a huge dent in the credibility of science in the mind of the general public, what with people still dying of… stuff, over a decade after Dr Francis’ Miracle Cure All.
    Now he’s at it again, guaranteeing specific results to a challenging problem, if only there were more money. Vaccine development is a hit & miss process, with a lot of basic science missing.
    Interestingly, the most significant knowledge gap on the road to better vaccines to be filled in the recent past is the understanding of how adjuvants work. Knowledge entirely dependent (as in directly derived from) on brilliant work in basic embryology and genetics of the fruit fly.

    Dr Collins did at least generate a lot of great internet memes. My favorite is probably this hashtag, where @NIH_Bear has promised me a lifelike toupee (more cautious than his Director, the NIH Bear could not guarantee the return of my natural hair) :
    #ThingsThatWouldBeFixedWithoutNIHBudgetStagnation

  13. David K
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I agree that funding for basic research needs to be addressed, but even if this were the case, it’s not clear that vaccines would be developed at a rate proportional to the amount of increased funding. Academic researchers are not incentivized to develop vaccines, they’re incentivized to make basic science discoveries. Furthermore, the academy lacks the resources to do clinical trials. Pharmaceutical companies lack the financial incentive to make vaccines for low-probability, third-world infectious diseases, but since vaccines are essentially public works, it is the government’s role to fund and commission vaccines. The pharmaceutical companies can then collaborate with the academy as necessary.

    There needs to be specific government funding allocated for commissioning vaccines from pharmaceutical companies in a contractual manner for low-probability, high-risk pathogens such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, coronaviruses, etc. We’re having enough trouble controlling Ebola; if this were a more contagious virus, like SARS or MERS, we would be looking into the abyss right now.

  14. David K
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    tl;dr: If you want vaccines, fund vaccines specifically.

    “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.”

    In this case, I don’t think it’s that big of an overtrivialization. The science for making vaccines for most pathogens is pretty well fleshed out — there are exceptions, like HIV and malaria, but those have to do with their unique biology.

    There is little financial incentive for development of vaccines for low-probability, high-risk pathogens such as Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Hendra, and the coronaviruses, and yet it is clearly in the public’s best interest to have them developed before an outbreak occurs. Therefore, funding their development falls squarely within the purview of the government. Although I do think the government should increase funding to NIH, to get these kinds of vaccines specifically the government needs to allocate funding and draw up contracts with companies that have the experience and resources to develop vaccines such as Sanofi, Novartis, BMS, Novavax, etc. While the academy has a role to play in advising and some initial basic research, they simply do not have the resources to do full scale clinical trials.

    It is of vital importance that the government work closely with the biopharmaceutical industry and fund vaccines for these low-probability, high-impact pathogens specifically. If this had been one of the coronaviruses, we’d be looking into the abyss.

  15. pete
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Back up a second……. Where does Collins, himself, say ““we would have had an Ebola vaccine if there had been more money”? I find statements like “we would have been a year or two ahead of where we are now” and “***hopefully***, be in a position to begin phase 2 trials” (emphasis mine). Don’t take the article’s author’s editorializing for the Collins’s own words. Also, forgive me because I’m not really familiar with the animal trials on the vaccine, but wouldn’t someone in the know be better able to judge than the average layman whether the results of the animal trials bode well for the success of human trials? That is to say, wouldn’t someone familiar with the animal trials be able to say whether or not they are “promising” and whether success in human trials is likely (not a given)? I may be wrong, so help me out if I am.

    • Posted October 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      This is his quote: “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. And think about the difference that would make, had we in 2014 been in the position to distribute rapidly tens of thousands of doses, in collaboration with our colleagues at GSK, of this vaccine, how much different would this be and how many lives would have been saved.”

      You don’t think that’s him saying if we’d been a year or two ahead, we’d be in a position to distribute the vaccine?

  16. pete
    Posted October 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Back up a second…….. Where does Collins, himself, say ““we would have had an Ebola vaccine if there had been more money”? I find statements like “we would have been a year or two ahead of where we are now” and “***hopefully***, be in a position to begin phase 2 trials” (emphasis mine). Don’t take the article’s author’s editorializing for the Collins’s own words. Also, forgive me because I’m not really familiar with the animal trials on the vaccine, but wouldn’t someone in the know be better able to judge than the average layman whether the results of the animal trials bode well for the success of human trials? That is to say, wouldn’t someone familiar with the animal trials be able to say whether or not they are “promising” and whether success in human trials is likely (not a given)? I may be wrong, so help me out if I am.

  17. Posted October 17, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the posts, all. It’s true that basic lab bench science is vital for knowledge’s sake, less so to make the career choices of PhD’s somehow less risky. But there’s lots of such science, that via the retrospectoscope, is less than of critical importance. The NIH funding for my doctoral research in public health, to the tune of $ hundreds large, now seems like overspend. But who knew then? And sensing the coming cuts in biomedical funding, I took the jump and collected a second, clinical doctorate, sort of just in case. Funding largesse comes and goes with changes in Wastington, DC, and any post doc unaware of this should get a broker’s or real estate license. Who’s surprised that a high level health official is whining mendacious about funding cuts at NIH? Who’s surprised that now Dr. Frieden, a shark with teeth for smokers while in NYC under mega rich/liberal Bloomberg, now tells us that using the many existing effective cyber means of country quarantine for areas with Ebola, as now many countries do, will cause more harm than good? Same nonsense concerning tightening our southern border, and starting a vibrant controlled guest worked program. Shuck and jive change we can all believe in. Aa.

  18. J. Selix
    Posted October 25, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Great point. So true, we do need basic research money. But Collins is a politician through and through. If Ph.D graduates fret about the job market but scientists still need lots of hands in the lab, he’ll happily talk about all the writing jobs available for those with Ph.D. credentials. If the sitting president holds prayer breakfasts and important members of Congress attend, he’ll write a cringe-worthy book about how he came to Creationism. And since Republicans had been making public jokes about basic research for the past decade while viciously slashing anything that smacks of it, he’ll go there. I’m suspect this is a defensive position too, is he not getting asked why no one saw this coming?

    So yes, great point, he’s technically wrong, but though I’m loath to say it, I tend to favor the guys who say we should all get on the same page, I believe he has this sussed out. Also, not emphasized here, our vaccine “failure” is entwined with our politics vis-a-vis Africa that also allows us to downplay Ebola because of our assumptions about the potential of virus outbreaks – nothing to do with money.

    I got steered here via Megan McCardle’s Bloomberg view column, which heavily excerpts Eisen’s to make her own, very different point, not that what we need is more funding for basic research, but in short — that science doesn’t need funding.

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