Columnist

Foes of medical research spending by the National Institutes of Health got a boost Sunday from an unlikely source: Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


Anthony Fauci, center, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, speaks at the White House on Oct. 3 on the U.S. government response to Ebola in West Africa. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)

Fauci, a media-friendly scientist, was asked on “Meet the Press” on Sunday about remarks on the Ebola outbreak made by Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins had said that if not for a “ten-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.”

As I wrote last week, Collins based his speculation on the fact that Ebola research had been cut in half in the past few years and as many as a quarter of Ebola-related grants had been shelved.

But Fauci took the highly unusual step of taking issue with his NIH superior on national television.  “I don’t agree with that, I have to tell you quite honestly,” he told Chuck Todd.  “I think you can’t say we would or would not have this or that. Everything has slowed down, but I would not make that statement.”

The headlines were predictable:

Budget cuts not to blame for lack of Ebola vaccine, Fauci says

NIH Official: Democrats Wrong to Blame Budget Cuts for Lack of Ebola Vaccine

NIH Official Contradicts NIH Head’s Claim That Budget Cuts Caused Ebola Crisis

NIH Official: Budget Cuts Can’t Be Blamed For Lack Of Ebola Vaccine

Collins, in a statement late Sunday, emphasized the common ground between the two: “We both agree that the loss of NIH purchasing power over the last ten years, especially with sequestration, has slowed down biomedical research in virtually all areas. We agree that NIH-funded Ebola research would be further along if that had not happened.”

I spoke Sunday night with Fauci, a longtime advocate for higher levels of medical research funding, to see why he had opened this public dispute with Collins.

He said he agrees that “budget cuts have a lot to do with the slowing down of research” on Ebola and most everything else, but it’s possible that even with full funding, NIH might have encountered difficulty with the vaccine and couldn’t persuade a corporate partner to make it.

“The only thing I would not have said is if we didn’t have cuts we would have a vaccine now,” Fauci said, “because we don’t know that.”

That’s true. But Collins wasn’t as categorical as Fauci suggests; he used the word “probably.”

The real problem with Fauci cutting off Collins at the knees is it will be used by critics of the NIH to justify continuing to squeeze spending at the agency while medical research costs soar.

“The people who say that, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to say it anyway,” Fauci told me.

But now, alas, they’ll have Fauci’s own words to use against the NIH.