Ebola Vaccine, Treatment Funding Draws Scrutiny, Political Accusations

Published October 22, 2014

The arrival of the ebola virus in the United States, including the first infections to occur in this country, has brought attention to the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, as well as politically tinged charges blaming officeholders of the opposing political party for any potential U.S. outbreak of the disease.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggested in an October 12 interview with the Huffington Post that budget cuts have delayed development of a vaccine. Groups engaged in the 2014 election fight have joined the argument as well, pointing a finger in campaign ads at supposed Republican budget cuts.

Romina Boccia, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says she doesn’t find the charges credible.

“The claim that budget reductions to the NIH are primarily responsible for the lack of an ebola     vaccine is misleading,” she said. “The reality is that ebola research has not been a strategic priority for either the NIH or private sector pharmaceuticals. NIH Director Francis Collins is doing the public a disservice by claiming otherwise.”

Not Among Funding Priorities

In the Huffington Post interview, Dr. Collins revealed an ebola vaccine has been in the works for a decade, adding, “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.”

A look at spending at the NIH over the last decade doesn’t support the claim, however. NIH funds jumped early in the Bush administration, rising from nearly $26 billion per year in 2001 to almost $34 billion by 2003. Funding has declined slightly since 2003, holding fairly steady at more than $30 billion since. CDC funding has followed a similar pattern.

A more likely culprit for the lack of a vaccine or proven treatment, if there is one at all, is poor prioritization of spending by NIH and CDC, critics charge.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) included in his “Wastebook 2013” examples of what the NIH uses its money on, including $325,525 to fund a study that concluded, “Wives would find marriage more satisfying if they could calm down faster during arguments with their husbands.”

Other examples of NIH spending include studying why lesbians tend to be overweight whereas gay men do not ($1.5 million), the sex life of fruit flies ($1 million), and why people like Seinfeld reruns ($688,000).

In addition, the NIH’s infectious disease branch failed to mention ebola in its strategic plan, while mentioning malaria, hepatitis C, and influenza, the last of which was mentioned more than 14 times.

“Follow the NIH’s spending, and it becomes very clear that HIV/AIDS is much more of a priority and yet there is no vaccine for it yet,” Boccia observed. “Moreover, the NIH certainly diverted millions in funding to rather dubious projects that it could have put towards infectious disease research if the agency acted as a good steward for taxpayer dollars.”

‘Absurd’ Attack Ad

Trying to use the funding controversy for political gain, the pro-Democrat group Agenda Project Action Fund aired an ad in mid-October blaming spending cuts and, in turn, ebola deaths, on Republicans, using the slogan, “Republican cuts kill.”

The ad and related claims drew swift rebukes from media, policy experts, and others noting the charges contradict the facts. Glenn Kessler, who runs the Fact Checker site for the Washington Post, called the charges “absurd,” noting there has been bipartisan support for the various measures that modestly scaled back the NIH and CDC budgets over the past several years, including the White House-devised sequestration.

“Obama’s Republican predecessor oversaw big increases in public-health sector spending, and both Democrats and Republicans in recent years have broadly supported efforts to rein in federal spending. Sequestration resulted from a bipartisan agreement,” Kessler wrote in his October 15 report on the claims, stating the Democrat activists deserved “Four Pinocchios” for blaming Republicans for NIH and CDC funding cuts. “In some years, Congress has allocated more money for NIH and CDC than the Obama administration requested,” he noted.

Alexander Anton ([email protected]) writes from Chicago, Illinois.