Email: Government scientists prep to slash Covid research in funding gap

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NIH staff overseeing dozens of trials for coronavirus treatments, vaccines and variant evolution are spending Friday discussing how to limit or wind down certain trials, estimating that they are more than $1 billion short on funding to continue all their research, one person familiar with the discussions said. Overall, the agency will see a $2.5 billion spending bump this year, to roughly $45 billion across 27 institutes, and may move around funds to cover priorities.

The budget crunch comes after House Democrats tossed $15.6 billion in coronavirus relief spending from the omnibus bill earlier this week amid caucus complaints that their states’ assistance would decline to pay for the new relief spending. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged to pass new coronavirus spending separately, stand-alone legislation has a slim chance in the Senate, where many lawmakers have questioned how health agencies spent past funding.

The $15.6 billion allotment was already a significant cut from health officials’ original $30 billion request to continue buying Covid-19 vaccines, therapies and tests as well as conducting research.

NIH and HHS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Libert in his email warned that top officials assumed there would be no new coronavirus funding in the 2023 fiscal year and that “agencies should be prepared to use base funding to continue any COVID activities” in the next year, writing “no new activities should be funded at this time. This includes expansion of ongoing efforts.”

NIH’s key Covid-19 research, or priority items, total roughly $700 million in spending, much of it this month, according to the email. Much of that spending is generated by the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, or ACTIV, initiative, which houses dozens of trials studying antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines and variant evolution.

“We’d especially like to understand the ACTIV trials and NIH’s plan for these activities if no additional funding was provided by Congress (i.e. what … is the endgame),” Libert wrote in the email.

Officials warn that if these trials are curtailed, the country will not be equipped to respond to another surge or a new coronavirus variant.

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