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Nancy Sullivan of NIAID discussing Ebola research with President Barack Obama. NIAID Director Anthony Fauci and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell look on.

Nancy Sullivan of NIAID discussing Ebola research with President Barack Obama. NIAID Director Anthony Fauci and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell look on.


NIH scientists lead presidential show-and-tell

BETHESDA, MARYLAND—Anthony Fauci remembers the last time he played tour guide to the president. In 2009, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) walked the newly inaugurated Barack Obama around the campus here, in what he calls a "getting-to-know-you-type visit.” Yesterday, Fauci hosted a second tour by Obama, but, against the backdrop of the global Ebola crisis; “this one has a specific purpose,” he says.

Obama’s purpose was equal parts celebration and exhortation. In remarks at the NIH Clinical Center, he congratulated NIH teams that have conducted basic research on the virus; cared for the Dallas, Texas, nurse Nina Pham when she was diagnosed in October; and worked on the vaccine candidate jointly developed with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), for which initial safety results were published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. He touted a new White House announcement about improvements in U.S. Ebola preparedness. And he won laughs from the audience of scientists by tiptoeing through a jargon-filled sentence describing their work. (When he reached the phrase “multiparameter flow cytometer,” the crowd burst into applause.)

But the visit also comes as the White House awaits action from Congress on a nearly $6.2 billion emergency appropriations request to continue fighting the virus in West Africa and to move candidate vaccines through clinical trials. The request, made on 12 November, allots $238 million to NIH. Fauci says $56 million of the total would go toward a larger efficacy trial in Liberia, which would include both the NIAID/GSK vaccine and another made by NewLink Genetics of Ames, Iowa (pending more data from ongoing safety trials).

Obama acknowledged that amid news of progress against the outbreak in Liberia, U.S. media attention to the crises has waned. “That’s sort of how our attention spans work sometimes. Ebola’s not leading the news right now,” he said. He urged Congress to approve the emergency request before leaving for the holidays, noting that his conversations with lawmakers have been encouraging. But as Congress struggles to reach a compromise on federal spending before adjourning later this month, it’s uncertain whether the Ebola request will be approved in its entirety.

After the speech, Clifford Lane, NIAID’s deputy clinical director responsible for the framework of the anticipated study, told ScienceInsider that the final emergency funding level will determine “how many things we might have to compromise” to conduct the new trial. He says he’s hopeful that the study will begin in January.

As the president made his way through the labs in the NIAID Vaccine Research Center, Nancy Sullivan, who heads the center’s biodefense research section, offered to show him the original lab book from her 1999 experiments involving Ebola. The results, published the following year in Nature, were the first step in what would become the NIAID/GSK vaccine. The president was transfixed by the notebook, Fauci says. He brought it up in his speech that afternoon, as evidence of the many years of quiet, incremental research now culminating—under a global spotlight—in a potential vaccine. “When she first had some breakthroughs in understanding the Ebola virus, nobody really gave a hoot,” Obama said. “Until you do.”

*The Ebola Files: Given the current Ebola outbreak, unprecedented in terms of number of people killed and rapid geographic spread, Science and Science Translational Medicinehave made a collection of research and news articles on the viral disease freely available to researchers and the general public.