WASHINGTON — The nation’s premier medical research institute is in “a scramble” to prepare for a partial government shutdown that could ruin costly experiments and leave sick patients unable to enter cutting-edge studies, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said Thursday.
Fauci stressed that patients currently in NIH-run studies — including those at the research-only hospital often called the “house of hope” — wouldn’t be adversely affected even if President Donald Trump and Congress don’t reach a budget deal to avert a shutdown at midnight Friday.
“We still take care of them,” Fauci, the NIH’s infectious disease chief, told The Associated Press. “You never want to put patients in any jeopardy.”
But new patients attempting to enter studies of experimental therapies, often because they’ve failed standard treatment, would have to be turned away, as happened during the last government shutdown.
And across the NIH, Fauci described how researchers working on projects from cancer therapies to new vaccines are figuring out how to try to save work in progress so it wouldn’t go to waste.
“It’s a scramble,” Fauci said, offering a peek at the practical impact of the budget impasse.
As at other federal agencies, NIH must determine who is an “essential” employee and would report to work if there is a partial shutdown — and who would be barred. There’s also a potential ripple effect, because NIH funds basic research and clinical trials at universities and other institutions across the country.
Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the cycle of off-and-on budget deals and shutdown threats demoralizing and disruptive to science.
“You have experiments that have been going on for months if not years, and then all of a sudden you’ve got to stop — you can’t do that,” Fauci said. “You can’t push the pause button on an experiment when you inject an animal with a particular substance to see what the response is and then you have to go home for a week.”
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, Fauci also said:
- It’s too soon to know how well this year’s flu vaccine is protecting against the tough virus strain hitting much of the country. Probably the flu shot will be about 30 percent effective, he estimated, and he said science must come up with better protection against the constantly mutating virus. He is prioritizing development of a universal flu vaccine to protect against both seasonal flu and super-strains that can trigger pandemics. How soon? “Years, not decades,” he said. Meanwhile, get the regular flu vaccine: “Any degree of protection is better than no protection at all.”
- Despite years of failed attempts, the hurdles to getting an HIV vaccine are “surmountable,” but expect such a shot to be only partially effective. Even a vaccine that’s 50 to 60 percent effective “would be a home run” because it could be combined with condoms, preventive medications and other steps, Fauci said. “When you put even a modestly effective HIV vaccine together with all of the other prevention modalities, I think we could put an end to the epidemic. That’s what I hope we can do at least while I’m still alive,” he said.
- Science has the capability, given the right resources, to create vaccines for tuberculosis and malaria, as well as HIV. Tackling all three, “you’re talking about millions and millions of lives per year that you’ll be saving.”
- Zika may have faded from the headlines but if it rebounds in Latin America, NIH has “a vaccine ready to go and prove whether it’s effective or not.” Perhaps more important, it was made in a way that NIH thinks could be copied quickly to fend off other emerging viruses.
— Lauran Neergaard