One of the National Institutes of Health’s only programs devoted to global health research and training is on the chopping block as part of President Trump’s vision for an overhaul of some government agencies.
The administration’s budget blueprint, released Thursday, lays out sweeping cuts, including the elimination of the NIH’s Fogarty International Center. Public health experts say the closure of the center, if approved by Congress, could hamper future responses to the spread of infectious diseases and slow research that could help Americans.
Since the late 1960s, Fogarty has worked to bring together thousands of “the best scientific minds around the world to address critical global health research problems” including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and other viral diseases. The center has a budget of $69.1 million — a fraction of the $6 billion in proposed NIH cuts — that today funds 400 research and training projects that involve more than 100 US universities.
Through these efforts, US scientists gain experience in developing countries and, in turn, help train foreign scientists based in developing countries.
“Taxpayers are reaping such benefits for a ridiculously small amount of money,” Peter Jay Hotez, dean of Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine and a former Fogarty advisory board member, told STAT.
In its budget proposal, the administration said the elimination of the center was part of a larger NIH reorganization that would “help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities.”
But Chris Beyrer, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins, said the plan to cut Fogarty is “extraordinarily foolish,” considering how it has bolstered the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
Beyrer received Fogarty grants to fund his large-scale AIDS research program, which works in over half-a-dozen countries — benefiting local researchers and investigators as well as American scientists and medical students. People in those countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and China, are now better equipped to fight AIDS, he said.
In addition, Fogarty’s funding has helped African nations stave off what could have been a widespread Ebola outbreak, according to Beyrer. In countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, ones ravaged by the outbreak, Fogarty-funded researchers are now helping local partners design training programs to develop expertise in fighting viral diseases.
“By training local researchers in epidemiology and lab skills, and helping them form networks with US scientists, we believe future disease outbreaks can be better contained,” Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass said in a recent statement. (A Fogarty spokesman declined to make Glass available for an interview or provide comment.)
Training researchers abroad also amounted to a form of soft diplomacy for the United States, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, who researches HIV at Emory University. “Those people are some of the best allies of the US,” del Rio said. “I can’t even begin to say what a mistake cutting Fogarty is.”
Hotez said he believes Fogarty is being targeted for “ideological reasons rather than budgetary reasons.” In doing so, he said, the Trump administration could undercut a key part US foreign policy and threaten the nation’s reputation as a leader in the fight against global health problems.
“It’s been the secret sauce against global health problems,” he said. Its programs “have saved tens of millions of lives saved getting people on antiretroviral drugs. But it has to be done with people in Africa. The US can’t go at it alone.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Chris Beyrer’s name.