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NIH Advisory Committee to the Director Discusses UNITE Initiative, ARPA-H, COVID-19

June 17, 2021

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CONTACTS
Julia Omotade, Sr. Science Policy Specialist
Jodi (Lubetsky) Yellin, Director, Science Policy

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) met virtually on June 10-11 to hear insights on the development of the COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics; receive updates on the NIH’s efforts to redress harassment; receive final recommendations of a working group on rigor, reproducibility, and translatability in animal research; discuss the proposal of a new health agency initiative; and receive updates on the launch of the NIH’s initiative to address structural racism.

The ACD is facilitated by the NIH Office of the Director and provides advice on major plans and policies pertinent to the NIH mission in the conduct and support of biomedical research, medical science, and biomedical communications. The committee is composed of members largely drawn from the academic and private sector research community and is chaired by NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD.

The June 10 sessions included an update from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the expeditious and multidisciplinary work resulting in effective COVID-19 vaccines, as well as insight into vaccine efficaciousness in both clinical trials and real-world settings. Subsequent pandemic-related updates included a presentation on the progress of COVID-19 therapeutics and post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC), also referred to as “long COVID,” which, according to Collins, can be defined as a collection of symptoms that “arise well after SARS-CoV-2 infection, that can persist for months, and can range from mild to incapacitating.”

In December 2020, Congress allocated $1.15 billion over four years for the NIH to support research investigating PASC [refer to Washington Highlights, Dec. 23, 2020]. In February 2021, the NIH launched the PASC Initiative to develop ways to treat or prevent these conditions. Coincident with the ACD meeting, on June 10, Collins reported that the NIH had awarded the first infrastructure awards supporting the RECOVER Initiative: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (previously the PASC Initiative).

Additionally, the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer, MD, and Deputy Director for Management, Alfred Johnson, PhD, provided updates on the ACD working group recommendations aimed at changing the culture in biomedicine and the NIH's efforts to redress harassment, respectively [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 28, 2019]. These efforts and actions are detailed in a June 11 commentary in Cell.

Sessions on June 11 included a presentation on the final report and recommendations from the ACD Working Group on Enhancing Rigor, Transparency, and Translatability in Animal Research. Following the ACD meeting, Collins commented on the implications such recommendations will have on the research and clinical biomedical enterprise. The AAMC responded to an NIH request for information on this topic in August 2020.

In a highly anticipated session, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director Eric Lander, PhD, and Assistant Director for Biomedical Initiatives Tara Schwetz, PhD, provided insight into the impetus and potential impact of new NIH initiative proposed in the president’s fiscal year 2022 budget request, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H) [refer to Washington Highlights, June 4]. Lander’s presentation was followed by an audience conversation about important measures to consider during the potential creation of this agency, including agency culture and the utility of international cooperation.

Also on the second day of the meeting, Marie A. Bernard, MD, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging and NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD, NIH principal deputy director, and Dr. Johnson led a presentation on the UNITE initiative’s progress and metrics of success. The NIH UNITE initiative was launched in March 2021 and “seeks to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community.” As reported by a June 10 NIH news release, Collins and the UNITE co-chairs authored a commentary in Cell, in which they affirm the NIH’s commitment to end structural racism, acknowledge the social reckoning events of 2020, and detail a framework for the NIH’s approach to tackle systemic racism [refer to Washington Highlights, April 8 and March 5].

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