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Virus Will Cost NIH $10 Billion in Lost Research, Director Warns

The coronavirus pandemic will cost the NIH about $10 billion in taxpayer-funded research, the agency’s director told a Senate panel Thursday.

That estimate comprises nearly a quarter of the National Institutes of Health’s more than $41 billion budget, more than 80% of which goes to research grants at universities and other research institutions. NIH Director Francis S. Collins said that number includes both lost productivity from shuttered laboratories as well as keeping scientists and their staff employed.

“This is a heartache, seeing the rest of the scientific enterprise pretty much put on hold,” Collins said during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Covid-19 testing. “The estimates are something like $10 billion of NIH funded-research that is going to disappear because of the way in which this virus has affected everybody requiring this kind of distancing and sending people home.”

NIH announced flexibilities in grants and deadlines to mitigate the impact of these costs, but that’s unlikely to cover all costs. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said one university in his state spent $20 million extending research programs, but that won’t be enough.

More Money Needed

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the health and wellbeing of the American people, and it must not be permitted to rob us all of desperately needed medical progress,” Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy for Research!America, said Thursday. “We urge the 116th Congress to empower continued progress against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other devastating health threats by restoring this research funding as part of the next emergency spending bill.”

The NIH funds about 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities and other organizations, and many those labs have closed. Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) asked Senate leadership for $26 billion in the next round of stimulus funding to address the challenges that U.S. scientific research workforce faces during this crisis.

That funding is necessary to restore and preserve momentum of the federal research enterprise once labs are able to reopen safely, Tannaz Rasouli, senior director of public policy and strategic outreach for the Association of American Medical Colleges and the executive director of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, said.

“It has been extraordinary to see the science community pivot wherever possible to research to advance our understanding of and response to Covid. At the same time, that means that research that was underway pre-Covid on other pressing health challenges like Alzheimer’s, cancer, substance use disorders, and others, has been suspended while labs are closed to promote social distancing,” Rasouli said in an email.

The AAMC has joined with other university groups such as the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the American Council on Education to rally for the $26 billion in funding.

Collins, who continues to run a laboratory that works on identifying and understanding the function of genes involved in a range of human diseases, said his own researchers are at home trying to write papers and read literature. “But they’re not at the bench doing experiments they would be doing on diabetes or aging right now if we had the chance.”

“The federal commitment to discovery and innovation—and the research workforce that makes such progress possible—is not only fundamental to combating Covid-19 and other known and unknown threats, it also helps the nation build resilience, promotes economic growth, and enhances global competitiveness,” Rasouli said. “We encourage lawmakers to provide emergency relief to offset the ‘ramp up’ costs of reopening labs, and to ensure a robust investment in NIH and other federal research agencies through the regular appropriations process in FY 21 and beyond.”