- - Sunday, December 7, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Turf wars are expensive, but they’re popular in Washington. Every turf warrior thinks he’s saving the republic by making sure his bureaucracy has a bigger budget and is more powerful than the bureaucracy across the street. Somebody has to pay for these wars, however, in both money and in kind, and that somebody looks a lot like the rest of us.

There’s considerable speculation about why there’s neither a vaccine nor a drug to treat Ebola. The virus was discovered decades ago, recognized as particularly lethal and capable of wiping out entire villages. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and a fierce turf warrior, knows why there’s no vaccine. Congress cut his budget.

“Frankly,” he says, “if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” he tells The Huffington Post.

Frankly, the NIH has been blowing money on a turf war, and if the agency had spent some of that money on Ebola vaccine research the medical researchers might have both vaccine and cure in sight. Turf wars, like all wars, cost a lot of money.

Dr. Collins’ agency spent $170 million fighting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over the safety of a chemical called Bisphenol A, which is used in a variety of products, including food cans and other food packaging. After a decade of research, the Food and Drug Administration declared that “current approved uses of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe.” Scientific and regulatory bodies around the world, including the particularly risk-averse European Food Safety Authority and the cautious Health Canada reached similar unequivocal conclusions.

The settled science did not prevent the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of NIH, from mounting an expensive challenge to the Food and Drug Administration, the agency duly authorized and paid to regulate BPA in food.

The NIH scientists argue that very low levels of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals are responsible for a wide range of medical conditions. Many other mainstream scientists, however, disagree.

Context is the key to understanding the bizarre and costly battle the NIH has been fighting against the rest of the regulatory world. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is directed by Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a longtime soldier in the war against chemicals. In an interview with Scientific American in 2012, Dr. Birnbaum suggested that chemicals like BPA are to blame for autism, attention-deficit disorders, and “of course, obesity and diabetes.” But actual scientific studies by European regulators and the Food and Drug Administration here dispute her conclusions. Studies by other scientists argue that low level exposure to BPA pose no health risks.

The arguments of scientists under Dr. Birnbaum’s direction are predictable. “Every time another study adds to the overwhelming evidence of the safety of BPA at the levels we are exposed to it,” says Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research, “Team Birnbaum seeks to spend more taxpayer money to find another way to do a study which will reach a different conclusion. But they never do.”

The director of the National Institutes of Health insists that congressional cuts of his budget explain the lack of an Ebola vaccine. But his agency has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a war against a safe and useful chemical, money that could have gone to crucial research to find a cure for a particularly vicious and lethal disease.

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