Emerging bipartisan resistance to President Joe Biden’s idea of a multibillion-dollar science agency shows lawmakers are increasingly divided about funding medical research, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every American agrees we must lead the world in scientific research,” a Republican leadership aide, who is close to the discussions, told Politico. “But, based on member conversations I’ve witnessed, the majority of Republicans in the House worry the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) will become another slush fund for Fauci-minded scientists — unchecked scientists who will use more government money just to curate their public image rather than get results.”
Heated disagreements about increasing the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) budget or funding new research into conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are rare. However, Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., point to claims that the NIH funded dangerous coronavirus research, and Democrats are having disputes among themselves about where the new agency should live.
If Republicans retake the House in November, they have indicated they will investigate NIH funding of infectious disease studies and its pandemic response.
In the Senate, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. — two of the GOP’s staunchest supporters of medical research and pandemic preparedness — are retiring.
Paul has publicly sparred with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over the senator’s claim that Fauci’s agency funded gain of function research in Wuhan, China prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Daily Caller reported. Fauci has accused Paul of making false allegations and attacking him for political reasons.
Paul serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Senate Committee and, if the GOP wins, he could be nominated as chairman of the committee.
Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., “is in ongoing negotiations” with Republican ranking member Burr “on authorizing language for the ARPA-H proposal, including where the agency should be housed,” a Democrat committee aide told Politico.
In a bill with co-sponsor Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., proposed that the agency should reside at NIH.
“I don’t think it matters so much where it’s housed as it matters how it’s structured, to both give it the independence but also the ability to cross pollinate,” DeGette told Politico.
When he has spoken about the potential new agency, Biden specifically has referred to ARPA-H as an NIH agency.
“And I’m calling on Congress to fund my proposed ARPA-H — the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health,” he said in a Feb. 2 speech. “This will be a new kind of entity within the National Institutes of Health — the NIH — with autonomy and authorities to drive unprecedented progress in biomedicine.”
Friends of Cancer Research’s Ellen Sigal told Politico that she remains optimistic because of the president’s personal desire to see new medical treatments developed, like a cure for the brain cancer that killed his son Beau.
“This is a serious personal commitment,” she said. “I have no doubt that President Biden will find a way to get this done.”