NIH grapples with rush to claim billions in pandemic research funds

Cornell University coronavirus researcher Gary Whittaker won a National Institutes of Health grant supplement to study how SARS-CoV-2 enters cells.

Cornell University

Sciences COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

For the second time in just over 10 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is scrambling to hand out billions of dollars in emergency research funding and scientists are rushing to get a piece of the action—even as some confusion and concerns abound. But as in 2009, when NIH faced the tricky task of quickly distributing some $10 billion in research funds to help the United States recover from the Great Recession, the agency appears to be finding its footing as it moves to award the additional $3.6 billion Congress has provided so far to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, some researchers remain uncertain about which projects can qualify for funding as NIH institutes seek to clarify the rules. And the rush has renewed questions about whether NIH can maintain scientific rigor and quality while speeding money out the door; the agency has promised to greatly accelerate some proposal reviews, for example, to just one-third of the usual time.

Both scientists and funders are feeling a sense of urgency. “Everybody I know is submitting a COVID grant,” says infectious disease epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee of the University of California (UC), San Diego, who has sent five proposals to various funding organizations over the past few weeks and already received one award from NIH.

“The pace now far exceeds anything I’ve ever seen by an order of magnitude,” says Matthew Fenton, director of extramural activities at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), who also witnessed NIH’s 2009 spending push.

There is one notable difference between then and now, Fenton and others note: In 2009, Congress gave NIH just 8 months to spend its stimulus trove because it was trying to jump-start the economy. This time, NIH has nearly 5 years—until 30 September 2024—to disburse its COVID-19 funds, allowing for more planning and longer term research.

The pressing need to curb the pandemic, however, means NIH isn’t sitting on its hands. “The situation now has a different kind of urgency,” Fenton says.

Questions of allocation and timing

NIAID has gotten $1.5 billion in COVID-19 funding, making it the leading recipient of the money that Congress has given to NIH in three pandemic-related spending bills (see table, below), much of it designated for research into treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics. The next two largest chunks went to the NIH director’s office ($1 billion) and NIH’s biomedical engineering institute ($500 million) to develop diagnostic tests, such as the rapid, point-of-care assays being developed through the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, a Shark Tank–like competition. And the National Cancer Institute received $300 million for a massive effort to evaluate SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests at its Bethesda, Maryland, campus.

A flood of pandemic funding

Congress has provided $3.6 billion to the National Institutes of Health for a variety of pandemic-related programs.

Amount Purpose
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases $1.53 billion Basic research, drugs and vaccines
Office of Director 1.03 billion Rapid testing
National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering 560 million Rapid testing
National Cancer Institute 306 million Serological testing
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute 103 million Therapeutics and longitudinal studies
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences 36 million Drug screening
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences 10 million Worker safety
National Library of Medicine 10 million Research resources

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Just how much of that money NIH has already distributed is not clear. A new federal database that tracks the spending of COVID-19 funds says NIH has awarded at least 129 grants totaling $160 million, but that list is likely incomplete. NIAID alone has committed more than $200 million of its new funding, Anthony Fauci, the institute’s director, said this week at a meeting of the NIAID advisory council.

Like other NIH institutes and programs that have gotten COVID-19 funds, Fauci’s institute has scrambled to figure out how—and how quickly—to allocate the money. Fenton expects “the great bulk” will go to beefing up existing grants and contracts supporting clinical trial networks. But some portion will also fund research grants to individual investigators.

Across NIH, officials say the goal is to move quickly on requests from researchers seeking 1-year supplements to existing grants, which institute staff can evaluate without sending the proposals to external peer reviewers. And even investigators proposing entirely new COVID-19 projects funded by the stimulus money will get accelerated responses, they say, with a target of having grants peer reviewed and awarded within 3 months after proposals are submitted, one-third the typical time. NIAID held its first such panel on 29 May.

Researchers already working on coronaviruses received priority for supplements, staff at NIAID say. “We ran into some administrative glitches, but all in all it was a relatively quick process,” says Cornell University virologist Gary Whittaker, who got a supplement in April to study how SARS-CoV-2 enters cells.

Approvals have also been speedy at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has dipped into its existing budget to fund COVID-19 research. Strathdee says just 1 month after she submitted, she won a supplement that will let her fold COVID-19’s impact into her newly funded project on drug users who cross the Mexican border. “It was incredibly smooth,” she says.

Evolving rules

But some researchers have been confused or dismayed by NIH’s sometimes evolving rules. Whittaker notes, for example, that some colleagues were disappointed to learn they weren’t eligible for supplements from NIAID if their grant was nearing the end of its term, or if they had gotten an extension to continue the project without new funds.

Other institutes have different rules, it appears. University of Pittsburgh psychiatric geneticist Shirley Hill learned that she could qualify for a supplement from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)if she applied before her grant studying the genetics of alcohol dependence expired on 31 May. She submitted her proposal on 22 May, but it was rejected by NIH’s grants office because NIAAA staff did not include a requested letter for requests more than $100,000. “We would have liked to leverage our data” to learn whether some people have a genetic susceptibility to COVID-19, she says.

HIV researcher John Moore of Weill Cornell Medicine faced a different problem: He wanted to repurpose money in an existing NIAID grant and use it for COVID-19 antibody studies. Initially his program officer said he couldn’t, but later said he could. “I found the process confusing in the early days, but it’s since been clarified and simplified,” Moore says.

Still, some researchers remain frustrated with the pace. “I just don’t see the money arriving anywhere,” says biologist Julia Schaletzky of UC Berkeley. In March, she penned a commentary pleading for the government to give funding to universities that they could award as seed grants. Absent a response, she has helped her university raise money through philanthropy to provide seed funding for 19 projects so far.

Quality concerns

Some worry that, in the rush, NIH will fund work that otherwise wouldn’t pass muster. Infectious disease genetics researcher Gaetan Burgio at Australian National University recently tweeted that the quality of many papers pouring out from groups dipping a toe in COVID-19 “varies from not good to often atrocious.” His own lab won’t try to pivot to winning grants for COVID-19 research, he wrote, because it would take 2 to 3 years to build a solid research program.

NIAID program officer Erik Stemmy downplays quality concerns. “I would say our standards for reviews have not changed,” he told ScienceInsider. And Valerie Bonham, a former NIH administrator who now represents academic medical centers in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Ropes & Gray, believes NIH is “working very hard to balance funding good, peer-reviewed science with trying to expedite the release of funding.”

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