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Senate committee proposes $15.5 billion in COVID-19 relief for NIH

By Alexandria Carolan

This story is part of The Cancer Letter’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19’s impact on oncology. A full list of our coverage is available here.

The Senate appropriations subcommittee July 27 proposed a fifth COVID-19 pandemic relief package that includes $15.5 billion in supplemental funds for NIH.

The measure, introduced in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies seeks to give NIH $15.5 billion as part of the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act.

“ASCO is encouraged by the inclusion of $15.5 billion in funding for the NIH proposed in the Senate,” Richard L. Schilsky, ASCO executive vice president and chief medical officer, said to The Cancer Letter.

“We continue to urge Congress to come to a bipartisan, bicameral agreement this year that provides both emergency relief funding to restart stalled research programs as well as necessary increases to the baseline NIH and NCI budgets to ensure continued progress in the vital research necessary to protect and improve the health of the American people.”

Nearly two-thirds of these proposed new NIH funds—$10.1 billion—would be set aside to reopen NIH-funded research laboratories and reconstitute lost research. The total cost of the package comes to $1 trillion.

At a Senate appropriations hearing July 2, NIH Director Francis Collins estimated that it would cost about $10 billion to restart the labs and resume activities that were halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, “just on the basis of the research that’s been lost (The Cancer LetterJuly 10, 2020).

This action is separate from the FY21 appropriations process.

“If we’re going to bring these institutions back up to where they need to be on top of that, I think there’s a wide variety of areas that NIH really would like to also put more efforts into, to compensate for this in terms of our efforts in COVID-19,” Collins said at the Senate hearing.

The amount proposed in the Senate version of the spending package for the departments of Labor, HHS, Education, and other agencies is $10.8 billion more than what the House proposed in emergency funding for NIH in a COVID-19 spending bill passed May 15.

“This funding increase for NIH in the Senate is significantly larger than the $4.7 billion for NIH that House Democrats included in their bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, that passed this past May, even though the House bill included $2 trillion more in overall funding than what the Senate is proposing to spend,” Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer and vice president of science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research, said to The Cancer Letter.

Cancer groups had expressed frustrations with the House appropriations bill, because it uses emergency funding to get around FY21 budget caps. As a result, the majority of proposed House funding for NIH—$4.7 billion—cannot count toward the base used to determine future appropriations.

The House bill would increase the FY21 NIH base budget by $500 million. To compare, over the past five years, NIH grew by $11.6 billion, or 39%. 

The Department of Health and Human Services receives $118.4 billion under the spending bill. This includes:

  • $3.4 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The proposal provides $3.4 billion to CDC, including $1.5 billion to continue supporting state, local, and territorial public health needs; $500 million to enhance seasonal influenza vaccination efforts; $200 million to enhance global public health security efforts; and $200 million to modernize public health data reporting.

  • $15.5 billion for NIH:

    • $290 million for National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

    • $200 million for National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

    • $480.56 million for National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

    • $172.68 million for Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

    • $200 million for National Institute of Mental Health

    • $64.33 million for National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities

    • $1.22 billion for National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences

The Senate bill slates $12.91 billion for the NIH Office of the Director. This includes:

  • $10.1 billion for NIH-funded labs and research,

  • $1.24 billion for the ACTIV public-private partnership to prioritize and speed the development of treatments and vaccines,

  • $240 million to provide resources targeting young researchers who need additional research time as post-doctoral candidates because of lost research/training due to COVID-19,

  • $1.33 billion for COVID-19 specific research to smaller ICs at the direction of the NIH director.

“Bottom line, the entire medical research advocacy community is very much indebted to Chairman Roy Blunt  (R-MO) and his colleague, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who serves as chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, for their willingness to fight for NIH funding in this urgent piece of legislation that is aimed at alleviating the burden and impact from the COVID-19 health and economic crisis,” Retzlaff said.

“We applaud the inclusion of $15.5 billion to ensure NIH-funded research stalled by COVID-19 can move forward,” Research!America President and CEO Mary Woolley said in a statement. “We encourage Congress and the administration to quickly agree on a supplemental package, equipping our nation’s research ecosystem to defeat COVID-19 and jumpstart medical and scientific progress.”