The Honorable Roy Blunt: Investing in Innovation to Respond to COVID-19 and Continue Progress against Cancer

U.S. Senator for Missouri
Age 72

There is no question we are at an exciting moment for health research. In less than one year, the federal government developed several vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tests to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. During shutdowns and social distancing, our research infrastructure was tested like never before, and it prevailed.

Our success in quickly and safely developing vaccines and other tools to fight the virus is due to years of investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Our accomplishments didn’t begin when the virus was discovered; they began decades earlier, out of the spotlight, with investments in basic research.

As the top Republican on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds health care programs, I’ve been proud to work with my colleagues to increase NIH research funding by nearly 43% in the past six years. This was after a decade of stagnant funding. Last year, our subcommittee provided an additional $4.8 billion to NIH for COVID “long-haulers” research, diagnostic test development, and research on how the virus spreads and mutates. This has proven critical to some of our most fundamental knowledge about COVID-19, including its impact on high-risk people like those with cancer and cancer survivors. Early NIH-supported research showed that patients with cancer were at greater risk for severe illness, which helped shape important public health recommendations.

Through the five bipartisan COVID-19 relief bills passed last year, the subcommittee provided more than $320 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to combat the virus. This included funding for medical research, for Operation Warp Speed to develop and deploy vaccines and therapeutics, and for the acceleration of diagnostic testing efforts. One of our nation’s great successes during the pandemic was our ability to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines rapidly. It happened because the federal government became a more active partner in research and development instead of just a sponsor.

At the height of the pandemic, when diagnostic tests were in short supply, former Senator Lamar Alexander and I created NIH’s RADx program to fast-track more tests to market using a “Shark Tank”-style process. From 716 ideas, there were 32 diagnostic tests developed and commercialized, increasing availability of tests across the country by more than two million per day. Through Operation Warp Speed, HHS was able to narrow approximately 100 COVID-19 vaccine candidates to the top six and simultaneously provide funding for their research, development, and manufacturing. As a result, when a vaccine earned approval, it was ready to be distributed immediately.

This model may be the most important concept to emerge from the pandemic, demonstrating that active collaboration between the federal government and the private sector, coupled with significant funding, can create scientific breakthroughs—potentially in record time. It also raises the possibility of replication. What if we could do for cancer or Alzheimer’s disease or ALS what we did for COVID-19?

Two COVID-19 vaccines proved the mRNA platform could be used for vaccine development. Why has it not worked for a cancer vaccine after decades of research? Researchers have already developed blood tests to detect several types of cancer, but they’re still not in wide use. What if the federal government replicated the COVID-19 research model for a cancer vaccine or diagnostic test? What if the government took more targeted financial risks and became a real partner, like a venture capitalist, in the research for cancer? Why shouldn’t we?

If there is one lesson we must take from this pandemic, it is that our nation’s success depends on the medical research infrastructure supported by the NIH. Our COVID-19 research and development efforts have transformed how we fund science. They have shown that we can find solutions in times of crisis at extraordinary speed. Now is the time to build upon that success.