NIH Wasteful Spending, Not Budget Cuts, is the Real Reason There is No Ebola Vaccine

Michi Iljazi

October 21, 2014

Kathleen Sebelius, Dr. Francis Collins, President Obama (courtesy nih.gov)

The recent developments on the Ebola crisis in West Africa have impacted the US in some troubling ways as there have been multiple potential cases reported over the last few weeks. In Dallas, Texas there have been multiple confirmed cases of Ebola and around the country there have been many who have been tested for the virus. The politics of Ebola have begun to take hold and you see many looking to take aim for who is to blame for the response by both the federal and state officials. Unfortunately, there is great deal of hypocrisy and theatrics in much of the blame game.  Nobody should be taken more to task than National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, who leveled an unfounded attack on why the agency has been less than prepared on the response to the recent cases of Ebola here in the US.

Last week, Dr. Collins told the Huffington Post that stagnant federal spending has led to a delay in having a vaccine ready to combat Ebola:

As the federal government frantically works to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as it responds to a second diagnosis of the disease at home, one of the country’s top health officials says a vaccine likely would have already been discovered were it not for budget cuts.

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has “slowed down” research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

Dr. Collins was very specific in his description of why the agency does not yet have an Ebola vaccine, saying “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… We would have been a year or two ahead of where we are, which would have made all the difference.”

Dr. Collins was incorrect in his assertion that budget cuts are to blame for the agency’s response. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the problem with the NIH is not a lack of funding but more a lack of prioritizing their funding to properly deal with real concerns that the agency should be working on for Americans.

Taxpayers fund the agency, so the NIH should be spending money on doing work that benefits the whole country. This is just common sense, and if Dr. Collins really wants to examine the deficiencies in the response by his agency to the Ebola situation, he need look no further than some of the things that NIH has spent taxpayer dollars on under his stewardship.

On September 11, 2104, The Washington Times ran an expose of how the NIH is wasting taxpayer money, including:

  • More than  $3 million getting monkeys drunk
  • Over $150,000 to see how mass alcohol consumption leads to losing more money while gambling
  • Almost $85,000 to breed mice genetically susceptible to binge drinking
  • Nearly $70,000 how text messaging impacts drinking before football games among college students

Other wasteful spending projects at the NIH include:

  • The agency sent over $90 million in taxpayer-funded grants to China
  • The agency spent nearly $3 million to study why lesbians are obese
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division within NIH was funded for a study into STDs on the US-Mexico border at a cost of over $675,000
  • The agency spent almost $200,000 to study cocaine’s impact on the sex drive of Japanese Quails

Demonstrating the clear existence of wasteful spending is just one way to show why Dr. Collins is (at best) misguided in his assertion. The other part of the problem with his reasoning is the amount of money NIH has been getting over the decade. Public records show that since 2004, the amount of money NIH has been receiving hasn’t changed much. In 2004, the NIH budget was just over $28 billion and in 2014 the budget in actually higher at $29.3 billion.

We have a clear pattern of wasteful spending, and a budget that hasn’t really been decimated in a way that prevents the agency from doing the work needed in order to be better prepared when serious health crises occur. Yet the head of a federal agency wants to blame the response and the lack of preparedness on budget cuts. It is instances like this that make cutting spending and reforming the way the bureaucracy works so difficult in Washington. Another problem for Dr. Collins’ is that his absurd claim is even being questioned by those at NIH:

National Institute of Health director Francis Collins should not have suggested that increased spending would have averted the Ebola crisis, according to one of the top NIH officials responding to the disease.

“I don’t agree with that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Meet the Press.

It’s pretty clear that the problem at NIH isn’t budget cuts and insufficient funding, but more a lack of basic common sense. When you can justify spending millions to study drunken monkeys but are caught off guard by a virus your agency has been working on a vaccine to combat for over a decade, then something is seriously wrong. Dr. Collins should be looking at how his agency is spending the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars they get annually and how better to direct that money on meaningful programs, rather than just complain that the money they have isn’t enough.

NIH is in serious need of reform and the situation with Ebola domestically appears to be manageable at the moment, but there is no telling what may be needed down the road.  Instead of blaming phantom spending cuts, NIH should recognize the real disease, lack of oversight and prioritization.

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