- - Sunday, October 19, 2014

It is unsettling that in discussing shortfalls in the federal government’s response to the Ebola crisis, some Beltway observers have resorted to the traditional Washington shell game: blame the budget. The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has lamented the lack of an Ebola vaccine and therapeutics due to insufficient resources. It is not, however, all that surprising.

The blame-the-budget game diverts the conversation away from focusing on NIH accountability for past priorities and spending. Those grumbling about the lack of resources should not neglect the resources poured into low-priority and perhaps unnecessary projects at NIH during the last decade. For example, Senate reports looking at NIH waste have identified at least $8.6 million in grants that were used in part to research how much study-abroad students drink when they’re away, if there is a connection between cocaine and risky sex habits of quail, whether TV reruns help people feel better, the impact of TV in rural Vietnamese villages, or why golfers need to envision a bigger hole, among other “pressing” topics.

In the midst of supporting these questionable projects, the NIH has had more than ample opportunity to fund valuable research on Ebola. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the institute within the NIH responsible for research on infectious diseases like Ebola, has had an average funding of $4.5 billion a year going back to fiscal 2004 — in other words, well over $40 billion over the past decade. During the same period the NIAID, at its discretion, spent about 1 percent of this amount on Ebola-related research. As a point of comparison, last fiscal year, the NIH spent more than $5 billion on administrative costs. If additional funding for the NIH was needed for Ebola, why has the organization never asked Congress for it? The fact that, to date, the administration has not requested additional funding for the NIH as part of their Ebola response suggests more could still be done right now without a plus-up.

Ultimately, the NIAID chooses how to spend the billions of taxpayer resources it has at its disposal. Ebola needed to be higher on the list all along. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security identified the Ebola virus as posing a material threat to our national security. If scientists at the NIH believe that we would have had an Ebola vaccine and therapeutics in hand today if things had gone differently, then they need to ask if the NIH has done all that it could do with its resources.

We completed a five-year doubling of the NIH budget in 2003, but there will never be enough resources to fund everything everyone wants to support. It’s about the choices we make with the resources we have and using all of the tools at our disposal — just like how families across America every day make difficult choices about their household budgets.

The past few weeks have been difficult for the American people and the administration. The threat of Ebola hit home hard with the death of the first Ebola patient, confirmed transmission of the Ebola virus in the United States, and increased entry screening at American airports. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scrambling to ensure that the procedures our health care workers are using work, and our overall preparedness and capacity to safely and effectively treat Ebola patients has been called into question.

More than 8,000 people overseas have been infected — almost half of whom have died — and despite promises, our actions to date are falling short: We are failing to turn the tide in this devastating epidemic.

We agree with the NIH director regarding the urgent need for Ebola vaccines and therapeutics. Let’s stay focused on getting the medical countermeasures we need to protect the American people off the bench, through the pipeline and to the patients who need them. In doing so, we’ll protect the American people from Ebola and the other serious threats we may face. This is what we should be focused on, whether we are in the midst of a crisis like we find ourselves in today, or in the calm between these storms. What we choose to prioritize determines whether we will be prepared for the threats we face.

Richard Burr, a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from North Carolina, authored the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act. Tom Coburn, a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma and a physician, serves as the ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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