Congress passed the first coronavirus relief bill in March. Since then, it has given billions of dollars to federal agencies to study COVID-19. Some of this funding had been awarded to Colorado State University and other research universities across the country. But other non-COVID research at CSU, and elsewhere, has not fared as well.
Ken Feldman and Gayle Gordon live just outside the town of Lyons in Boulder County. Inside their spacious home is a shrine dedicated to their deceased pets: three dogs and a rabbit.
“We have their collars and their ashes and their favorite toys and all their photos and stuff like that,” Feldman said. “Their paw prints in clay.”
“You can tell that we don’t have children,” joked Gordon.
“Right,” he replied with a laugh. “Because we would have no time.”
So, when they heard about the Vaccine Against Canine Cancer Study (VACCS) at Colorado State University, they submitted applications for their current dogs, Kallie and Zeke 2.0.
“We don’t want someone else to have to go through some of the things we’ve been through,” Gordon said. “This is really important to us and it’s some way we can contribute in a tiny little way.”
VACCS will be the largest clinical trial ever conducted for canine cancer. The goal is to study 800 dogs in a randomized placebo-controlled trial that tests a novel vaccine for the prevention of several kinds of common cancers in dogs. There are three study sites, CSU, the University of Madison-Wisconsin and the University of California Davis, and the scientific hub is Arizona State University. The $6.4 million trial is funded by the Open Philanthropy Project.
Kallie and Zeke 2.0 were accepted into the five-year trial in February. But before they could get their first vaccine, the coronavirus shut down the research.
“There was a period of time, a good couple of months where really we didn’t feel like it was appropriate to screen any new patients,” said Doug Thamm, the lead clinical investigator for VACCS and an oncology professor and the director of clinical research at the Flint Animal Cancer Center at CSU.
There are approximately 4,700 active research projects at CSU and in the last fiscal year, 78% were funded by federal agencies. Forty-four are COVID-related including the development of four vaccine candidates. But in April, a CSU faculty survey found 432 of the projects were stopped or impacted by the coronavirus.
“So, we had a pause,” said Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at CSU. The long-term effects of COVID on their research is still unknown because contracts and grants have certain expectations around execution and timing.
“That pause created you know some issues around, ‘well, you can’t finish the work in the same amount of time, how will that be adjudicated?’” he said.
Congress passed the first coronavirus relief bill in March. Since then, it has appropriated significant funding to federal agencies, including about $3.6 billion to the National Institutes of Health for COVID research and testing. A portion of this funding has then been awarded to research institutions across the country like Colorado State University.
But while there are thousands of COVID-related research projects at universities across the country, other research has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“This is a heartache, seeing the rest of the scientific enterprise pretty much put on hold,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at a Congressional coronavirus hearing on May 7. “The estimates are something like $10 billion of NIH-funded research is going to disappear because of the way in which this virus has affected everybody requiring this kind of distancing and sending people home.”
That $10 billion includes the cost of research materials that had to be discarded, like cells that only stay alive for three days to a week, said Ellie Dehoney, vice president for policy and advocacy at Research!America which represents organizational members in the research ecosystem from patient organizations to research universities.
“If you can’t use them because you can’t be conducting the research then those cell lines die and you’ve got to restart again,” she said.
This financial loss only pertains to life sciences and bio-medical research, she said, and there are nearly a dozen other national science agencies that fund projects. Scientists have also been impacted including graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who rely on research to start their careers.
“If they don’t get another grant or those grants aren’t supplemented, those grants just stop. That research stops,” she said. “Then what do they do? Where do they go? Do they stay in science?”
Money for COVID-related research can’t be redirected to other types of research because it comes from a different funding source.
“Research enterprises within these universities (are) at risk,” she said. “Universities are the backbone of U.S. basic fundamental research.”
The Council on Governmental Relations released a report in August that presents a model to help universities estimate research output loss and the financial impact of COVID-19. Case studies of five institutions from March 2020 to February 2021 show a projected output loss of 20 to 40%, as well as financial disinvestment that could exceed hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It’s very worrisome for our basic infrastructure, for the U.S. infrastructure,” Dehoney said. “(Universities) are the launch pad for the economic growth that comes from R&D (research and development)-based industries, whether it’s pharma or agriculture. Whether it’s technology.”
In June, Colorado congresswoman Diana DeGette and five of her colleagues introduced the Research Investment to Spark the Economy, or RISE Act. The bipartisan legislation would authorize $26 billion in emergency relief for research workforce and institutions impacted by the pandemic. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner co-introduced a similar bill in July.
The RISE Act will help the U.S. maintain its competitive edge in research areas like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, said Dehoney.
“We can’t wait for these crises to hit us, we have to be out ahead of them,” she said. “The RISE Act level sets us back to a place where we can start thinking much more proactively about our science future and becoming stronger.”
The pandemic is still impacting non-COVID research at CSU, where about 5% of active projects are not fully up and running again. VACCS resumed in June but the trial still needs to enroll more dogs.
“Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs,” said Thamm. “So, finding a new way to address one of the biggest health concerns in our canine companion, I think is really laudable by itself.”
The trial should generate a lot of information that could be very helpful for dogs as a species, continued Thamm, and if it’s successful a similar approach could one day be used in humans.
Of course, there are COVID-19 protocols in place. Ken Feldman and Gayle Gordon are not allowed inside CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center. The researchers come out to the car and get their dogs, and all communication is done over the phone.
“We’re happy that (the trial) has progressed and that the dogs are in,” said Gordon. “Maybe they can do something to help another dog or another animal that would be great.”