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Francis Collins Sounds Alarm on Zika Funding

In a recent Washington Post Live town hall-style talk with the newspaper's Lenny Bernstein, NIH Director Francis Collins expressed his optimism about a variety of projects the agency is undertaking. He talked about the plans for the Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort Program, asking Americans to be the NIH's "partners" in learning everything possible about human health and disease. He spoke about the advances he believes will be made through the Cancer Moonshot program. He said it's likely there will be an HIV vaccine in our lifetimes, and detailed how he has revamped the NIH's HIV/AIDS research efforts to focus on the vaccine strategy. He also talked about a collaboration with industry partners that the agency started two years ago to research Alzheimer's, and said the partnership is starting to yield new ideas for drug targets and therapeutics for early treatment.

When it comes to Zika research, however, Collins sounded an alarm. "We've never had a mosquito-borne virus that's been capable of causing birth defects," he said, explaining why Zika is so different and scarier than other similar viruses. The hit rate for birth defects in babies born to mothers with the virus is unknown but is "very disturbingly high," he added.

It's a public health emergency. But the response has been "too slow and too underpopulated with resources," Collins said. The NIH is trying to come up with treatments, like repurposing old drugs and building vaccines. In fact, the agency is in Phase I trials for a new vaccine, and is looking to expand in early 2017 to Zika-infected place to determine its efficacy.

"But we are running out of money," Collins said. "In fact, we ran out of money a few weeks ago. [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Sylvia Burwell] did what she had to do and instructed NIH to take money from other things. We took money from cancer research. We took money from Alzheimer's disease. We took money from rare diseases and diabetes. We took it from everywhere in order to keep the vaccine trial going. And that was pretty awful and has never been done before, but even that money runs out at the end of September. If there's no money, we can't keep running the trial."

Collins did add that he was encouraged by news from Capitol Hill on possible movement for real bipartisan support for Zika research, "and that can't happen too soon."