There has been some talk by scientists (of all people) that NIH Director Francis Collins’ statement that “if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this [Ebola outbreak] that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready” was over the top. Personally, I thought this backlash from the scientific community was over the top. Collins should have added some ‘weasel words’: probably, more likely, and so on (of course, then he would have been pilloried by the professional scientific communicators for not speaking clearly).
But it’s also clear that a lot of Ebola-related research got whacked really hard due to budget cuts (boldface mine):
This should not be controversial. His conjecture was based on cold budgeting facts. NIH funding between fiscal year 2010 and fiscal 2014 had dropped 10 percent in real dollars — and vaccine research took a proportionate hit. Research on an Ebola vaccine, at $37 million in 2010, was halved to $18 million in 2014.
Officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases report that budget cuts forced them to shelve 14 Ebola-related grants, roughly a quarter of the total. The NIH was forced to prioritize spending, to react to the most pressing current threats rather than potential ones, and because there was little Ebola activity at the time, shifting money to Ebola from, say, cancer or Alzheimer’s research wasn’t a viable possibility.
Are there guarantees that the Ebola vaccine or any of the other projects will pass Phase I trials (that is, not cause harm to healthy people–the first step in clinical testing)? Of course not, but how else we discover this without doing the trials? At least one Ebola researcher thinks we would have been farther along were it not for budget cuts–he might just know something. (By the way, if any of these treatments do pass Phase I trials, will critics admit that the funding cuts hurt our ability to deploy and test them in the field on sick patients? Just asking).
I get the concern in post-Human Genome Project era of overselling science projects, but vaccine development and antiviral therapeutics have to be tested. Funding cuts mean we didn’t even get the opportunity to fail, never mind possibly succeed.