August 14, 2014
Ebola is in the news. Earlier this year it was MERS (Middle-eastern respiratory syndrome); SARS and bird flu before that. I don’t know about you, but Ebola seems to me a particularly horrific way to die. It’s pretty far away at this point – but air travel makes it possible and even probable in the U.S. if the outbreak continues to expand. Whether it’s Ebola or some equally infectious agent, some day a bug this bad will be on our doorstep. History is an excellent teacher and it informs us that biological threats are far more destructive of human life than war. Consider that the 1919 Pandemic (it was also called the Spanish flu) took the lives of 50 to 100 million people by the latest estimates. There were fewer than 2 billion people on the planet then. You could do the math, but I’ll do it for you: that means up to 5 out of every 100 people alive at the time died from it. It infected 500 million or 1 out of every 4 people in existence. That’s more people than all those killed in all the wars of the 20th century – yup, WWI + WWII + Korea + Vietnam. By the way, the best guess is that the flu that swept the world started in Kansas.
I don’t say this to incite panic. But I do say it to get you thinking about what worries me: the fact that we can and should be prepared for a variety of these contagious disease disasters, but we are not. Why not? In a word: research. What businesses do you think are lining up for the chance to cure a disease that afflicts a mere few hundred people a year in poverty-stricken countries? Which pharmaceutical companies are hard at work finding vaccines to prevent these fatal scourges? You know the answer. Private industry engages in profit-making research; there is no profit in reading tea-leaves about what might eventually head our way.
This is why basic medical research in this country has always been conducted first and foremost by labs associated with our federal government: the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, and a multitude of private labs funded predominantly by grants from the federal government. Scientists at these facilities are charged with investigating the obscure, the non-profitable, the what-may-never-be-but-might-be that lies in our future. No venture capitalists line up to hire these researchers, no Silicon Valley entrepreneurs can afford to fail repeatedly before they succeed. But the federal government, charged first and foremost with protecting the people can, and does, often fail at the science of prevention and cure before it succeeds. In fact, that is one of the basic tenets of research – to keep trying until you succeed.
This is expensive, to fail repeatedly before succeeding. So the NIH fell victim to the budget wars, just like nearly everything else in front of our notoriously inept current Congress. For each of the last 4 years 1 million dollars has been slashed from the NIH’s budget. We are losing the best and brightest scientists to political grandstanding and a public that is focused on the shortcomings of our current government without an appreciation for the good, indeed great, things only government is capable of accomplishing. The premier research institutions in the U.S. are drowning with the government baby in the bathtub. This might be good political theater but it’s really bad for our health. Some day we will be overrun by a biological organism we could have been prepared for. We throw our treasure at military threats, and withhold it from that which historically is more likely to do us in. When it comes to protecting us, we need good government at our backs with more than just guns.