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Money for New Clinical Trials to Be Tight After Virus Shuts Labs

Restarting clinical trials idled by the coronavirus will chew into the National Cancer Institute’s budget, meaning fewer new studies will get funded without a boost from Congress, the institute’s director warned.

While universities can keep paying researchers who can’t work on their grant projects, ramping up that research again will increase the projects’ time and costs, Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute, said in an interview. Funding for clinical trials was already stretched before the pandemic.

“That’s really starting to become a major concern of mine for ’21,” Sharpless said. “We will need budgetary support to continue our commitments to things like clinical trials.”

The National Cancer Institute already has one of the lowest percentage of grants funded based on the number of applications received among the 27 entities that make up the National Institutes of Health. While the NIH’s overall funding rate is about 22%, the cancer institute is closer to 10%, which is an increase over recent years.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said at a cancer research conference Monday he wants to address low funding rates. Grant applications have increased 50% since 2012—a rate 10 times higher than any other NIH institute.

“In concept, this is a great problem to have, to have that many potential things out there fighting this incredible scourge of our society. But in reality, you obviously don’t want to turn away promising research proposals when they had a chance to do it,” Blunt said at the American Association for Cancer Research’s virtual meeting. “We’re going to work to see what we can do to solve that problem.”

Blunt is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

Federal Budget Brewing

Lawmakers are already working on fiscal year 2021 spending bills while addressing the pandemic. The House plans to mark up the labor-health and human services spending bill July 7, according to a “Dear Colleague” letter from House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.). The Senate’s plans to mark up spending bills have been tangled up in disagreements over coronavirus and criminal justice proposals, according to Bloomberg Government.

The NCI received a $297 million increase to about $6.4 billion in FY 2020, $210 million of which went toward research and training grants. But research grants have five-year life spans, so new grants funded in 2020 must be paid through 2024.

“Without the appropriate amount of funding, I think our pay lines would suffer,” Sharpless said.

The NCI is still calculating how much of an increase it would need to make up for lost research. Sharpless expects the costs to be significant, based on natural disasters like hurricanes that have shut down research labs.

Lost Time Hikes Training Costs

The budget crunch could also pinch the cancer institute’s ability to train the next generation of scientists. Grants for training programs are typically two-year awards. Having those programs sidelined for several months will add even more costs.

“Now people are going to need an extra six months to complete them, so that adds an extra 25% of the cost of that award. So we’re going through division by division to figure out what these costs are likely to be in 2021, so we can give Congress a good estimate,” Sharpless said.

NIH Director Francis S. Collins told a Senate panel in May that the agency as a whole has lost about $10 billion worth of research, which is almost a quarter of the agency’s $41 billion annual budget.

Research!America estimates the nation’s research and development agencies need a minimum of $26 billion to “to re-seed the U.S. R&D continuum across all federal research funding, and to address gaps in voluntary health organization and philanthropic research funding resulting from the pandemic.”

—With assistance from Alex Ruoff

(Updated with comments from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) beginning in the fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.comAndrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com