Gupta: Health officials working on vaccine for coronavirus
Dr. Kevin J. Tracey is president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The spreading coronavirus epidemic and rising death toll highlights the urgency of developing new treatments and vaccines. Progress in the United States is advancing at breakneck speed, but Congress should significantly and urgently expand research funding to the National Institutes of Health to stop coronavirus and any future outbreaks.
It is essential to invest in the NIH because it is the major sponsor of medical innovation in the nation’s research institutes and university laboratories where breakthroughs occur to protect the nation’s health. Last week, President Trump signed the $8.3 billion bipartisan spending bill into law in response to the coronavirus, tripling his initial recommendation to spend $2.5 billion. The emergency funding was a good start, but it’s far from enough.
The funding allocates $2.2 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $3.1 billion for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, but only $836 million for the National Institutes of Health. Although the investment in the CDC and the public health fund is essential and appropriate to contain the present crisis, this bill fails to make a dent in the 17 years of inadequate funding for the NIH that has come before this — funding which has not even kept pace with inflation.
NIH funding is required to enable the discovery and development of vaccines and other new treatments for many deadly infectious diseases including HIV, malaria, Ebola, hepatitis, tuberculosis and others. Because its mission supports the highest quality, distributed research infrastructure necessary to study these illnesses, the NIH is uniquely responsible for maintaining the necessary scientific expertise to also confront new epidemics, like coronavirus.
For 100 years, the United States’ scientific research enterprise led the world in eradicating, or close to eradicating, global infectious diseases. Until recently, infection was the most common reason people died, but US-led research in vaccines and therapies for polio, measles, influenza and pertussis, along with antibiotics for bacterial infections and tuberculosis, have nearly eradicated these threats.
NIH funded the pivotal scientific research — growing poliovirus in tissue culture — which enabled the development of the first polio vaccine and the eradication of a previously terrifying paralytic disease scourge. More recently, NIH funded in part the research which identified the first efficacious treatment for Ebloa virus, which has already saved hundreds of lives from a catastrophic hemorrhagic illness with historic mortality rates of 50%. Today, because of past investment in NIH-funded science, the risk of dying from infection is dwarfed by the risks from cancer, heart disease, obesity, car crashes and other injuries. Coronavirus is a wake-up call that the time has come to renew sustained investments in NIH for the future physical and financial health of US citizens.
The majority of NIH’s funding supports more than 300,000 medical innovators, researchers and staff at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools and other research institutions in every state. Researchers confront the basic mechanisms of disease, using sophisticated new tools in molecular biology, immunology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering to produce breakthrough cures and vaccines. Because NIH paid for the work to make these tools, today we can produce experimental coronavirus vaccines in just a matter of weeks, instead of years or decades, as has happened in the past.
The coronavirus vaccine development and testing process is just beginning, and more work is needed before we know whether these first efforts will succeed. President Trump’s proposed 2020 fiscal year budget to slash the NIH budget by about 13% is a move in the wrong direction. Only a sustained and increased commitment to NIH research will win the war on coronavirus and provide for national health and security.
Now is the time to act, because once this coronavirus is contained, another epidemic will come. No one wants to repair a leaking roof at the height of a storm. The time to build and maintain infrastructures is when the sky is clear. One-off emergency short-termed budget responses for the NIH is not what the nation requires or expects from Congress.
Because research does eradicate deadly diseases, like polio and smallpox, we have an obligation to support the science to treat and prevent diseases like Ebola or coronavirus. It’s time to carry the torch and redouble support for our research infrastructure and our medical innovators for the benefit of humanity.
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