California Forum

We can’t fight Ebola and grandstand at the same time

Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., attend a hearing on the Ebola response last week.
Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., attend a hearing on the Ebola response last week. The Associated Press

Erica Ollmann Saphire is an immunologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. She spends her days studying the Ebola virus and mapping its vulnerabilities.

To the extent that we know where a cure might penetrate Ebola’s molecular armor, it’s because of the focus of her research. And to the extent that that research has happened at all, it’s not because of some ice-bucket challenge.

Rather, for 10 years, the National Institutes of Health has underwritten her every lab worker, chemical and test tube.

“Every dollar I have,” she says, “comes from the NIH.”

Nearby, at Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. in San Diego, researchers tell a similar story. Mapp is the company behind ZMapp, the first Ebola drug to be used on patients during the current outbreak.

Since 2004, the Pentagon and the NIH have poured more than $40 million into the development of ZMapp. Lately, it appears those tax dollars may have been worth it. Before supplies ran out, the experimental drug was being credited with perhaps saving the lives of two American health workers who had contracted the disease.

Government bashers have had a field day this week critiquing the domestic response to Ebola. How could the protocol have been so lax at the Dallas hospital where the first U.S. patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, was treated? How could one of his nurses – later determined to be infected – have left his bedside and boarded a plane?

“Mistakes have been made,” intoned Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “Trust and credibility of the administration and government are waning.”

Well, it’s true that mistakes were made. The hospital misdiagnosed Duncan and failed to protect nurses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to ensure that the hospital staff actually knew how to treat Ebola without becoming infected. And the CDC failed to keep that nurse home through the disease’s 21-day incubation.

All serious errors. And, going forward, all important to rectify.

But that’s hardly the whole truth of the U.S. government’s response to Ebola. And it’s irresponsible to pretend the only issues here arise from a few public health workers’ mistakes.

If Congress wants to talk waning trust, it should look in the mirror. Some of those failures might have been less likely had the health system not had to contend with years of cuts and partisan gridlock.

Thanks to Republican budget slashing and the automatic cuts of the 2011 sequester, the CDC lost $600 million during the last four years from its discretionary budget. The NIH lost about $500 million for the institute that works on viruses like Ebola.

Republicans pushed the cuts, but plenty of Democrats voted for the sequester. And the result was less money for things like protective gear and infectious disease research.

That’s why Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the NIH, was only exaggerating a little when he complained that “we probably would have had a vaccine” by now had Congress given the health system a financial break.

The fact is, some challenges can’t be met without government backing. There have been failures, but there also have been initiatives that work. We’re vulnerable if we bog down on one and neglect the other.

We can fight or we can grandstand, but we can’t afford both.