Vox has a new post about Frances Collins remark that if the NIH had better funding, we would have an ebola vaccine by now. Vox says this isn’t true. I think this was addressed briefly during the hearing. The NIH went for years looking for a partner for vaccine research in the private sector and couldn’t find one. Finally, they got GSK and another company interested in development.
Here’s what Vox doesn’t understand about drug discovery research and I have seen this repeated time and time again until it has become ingrained and hard to dislodge:
The NIH is not the only player necessary to take vaccines to market. The agency’s role in pharmaceutical development is usually basic research, giving scientists grants to look at how diseases function and what can stop them.
When it’s time to use that science to build a vaccine, that’s where drug companies typically come in, paying for the trials and manufacturing. We don’t know whether, in a world where the NIH had more funding, a pharmaceutical company would have stepped forward to do this. There’s decent reason to believe there wouldn’t have been; a vaccine to treat Ebola, an infrequent disease that hits low-income areas of the world, is hardly a blockbuster.
This is the conventional wisdom but it is incorrect. The NIH does provide valuable basic research but the key word here is basic. It’s not like the NIH develops a vaccine that just needs to be “built” by private industry. It’s the same thing with drugs for cancer or any other illness. The NIH provides very basic starting points. After that, private industry has to pour massive amounts of money into research to fill out the details to get it to the point where it can be built.
What Vox and others do not understand is that private industry research is Real RESEARCH.
Now, if Vox wants the NIH to do the same kind of research that private industry is doing, starting with basic nuggets performed in NIH sponsored labs and publishing work that frequently can not be reproduced in private industry labs (I have been there, Ezra Klein), then it will need a lot more funding.
And this may be necessary anyway because private industry has decided that Real RESEARCH is way too risky and it would prefer not to do it anymore. (Hence the hundreds of thousands of layoffs that we refer to as Pharmageddon) So, if we want a vaccine for anything, it may eventually have to come from the NIH. That is what Collins is referring to. NIH can only go so far without a private partnership. If the partnership isn’t there and funding is cut, guess what? No vaccine.
This has been another episode of a former drug discovery researcher fruitlessly trying to correct the record.