A strategic plan laid out by the federal health agency in charge of fighting Ebola indicates that the virus was not a top priority, despite claims made by the agency’s director that budget cuts are to blame for the spread of the disease.
Spending on Ebola became a political football recently after Democrats began parroting claims made by top public health officials that budget cuts — which have been blamed on Republicans — have slowed down the fight against the West African disease.
National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins made the claim in a recent interview, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency within the NIH, made a similar statement on Sept. 16.
“I have to tell you honestly it’s been a significant impact on us,” the director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told the Senate Committees on Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of spending cuts.
“It has both in an acute and a chronic, insidious way eroded our ability to respond in the way that I and my colleagues would like to see us be able to respond to these emerging threats. And in my institute particularly, that’s responsible for responding on the dime to an emerging infectious disease threat, this is particularly damaging.”
When Fauci made those comments, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had reached an all-time high. But it had not yet hit the U.S. Now, two Dallas nurses have come down with the virus. They contracted the disease after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the disease on Oct. 8.
But a look at NIAID’s 2015 strategic plan suggests that Ebola was not at the top of the agency’s list of priorities.
The strategic plan mentions Ebola only once. Hemorrhagic fever, which is what Ebola is considered, was also only mentioned a single time.
In comparison, HIV is mentioned 93 times in the document. MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, is mentioned six times. MERS was first documented in the U.S. in May. HCV, or hepatitis C, is mentioned five times. Malaria is mentioned 18 times, and tuberculosis appears in the document four times.
In its strategic plan, NIAID stated that it would be requesting $31 million more in spending compared to 2014, during which it received $4.4 billion.
Though the spending increase request is relatively small, the strategic plan did not specifically earmark Ebola or hemorrhagic fever for increased support.
And while NIAID may have had Ebola and other viruses in mind when requesting increased spending on new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic measures, the agency did not specify the virus as a focal point as it did with other diseases.
“NIAID will continue to support its Infectious and Immunologic Diseases research portfolio to support critical research on malaria, tuberculosis, food allergies and asthma, autoimmune diseases, rejection of transplanted tissues and organs, applying new discoveries to the development of vaccines, drugs, diagnostic tools and prevention strategies that will improve the health of millions around the world,” reads the strategic plan.
The biggest segment picked for budget expansion was reserved for HIV/AIDS research. The agency requested $23.4 million more in spending to fight the disease.
Whatever the level of health officials’ focus on Ebola, Democrats have jumped on Collins’ and Fauci’s claims that budget cuts are somehow responsible for the spread of the disease. Politicians have circulated the logic, and liberal groups have created ads slamming GOP lawmakers.
Republicans have hit back by pointing out that the public health agencies — the NIH and also the Centers for Disease Control — have not seen their budges pared back. The CDC, which is under fire for the way it has informed the public about the existing Ebola threat, has seen its budget nearly doubled since 2000.
Republicans have also pointed to projects commissioned by the National Institutes of Health as evidence that the agency is not always serious about spending. One such study sought to find out why lesbians tend to be more overweight than gay men. (RELATED: NIH To America: You Can Have Either Your Ebola Vaccine Or You Can Have Your Origami Condoms)
The National Institutes of Allergies and Infections did not respond to a request for comment about its strategic plan.