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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Leaders Discuss Medical Research and COVID-19


    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations
    Tannaz Rasouli, Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach

    Two National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute directors described in briefings for congressional staff and the research community the role that past and ongoing work is playing in addressing the wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health threats.

    The briefings — part of an ongoing series “Medical Research & COVID-19: Updates from NIH’s Institutes & Centers” — featured the directors of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, which is convened by the AAMC, and the Coalition for Health Funding are co-hosting the briefing series.

    Gary Gibbons, MD
    National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Director Gary Gibbons, MD

    At the Oct. 20 briefing, NHLBI Director Gary Gibbons, MD, described how NHLBI leadership quickly identified that COVID-19 would impact the institute’s entire portfolio of heart, lung, blood, and sleep disorders. Gibbons reported that the institute responded “nimbly, rapidly, and adaptively” by mobilizing the research community to develop new, COVID-19-specific research proposals and establish trans-NIH networks for clinical interventions in COVID-19 patients.

    Gibbons noted that the NHLBI used supplemental funds to solicit COVID-19 research proposals and received an “overwhelming response” from the research community. “If we had funded everything that came in, it would have been well over a quarter-billion dollars” in research, Gibbons said. The projects NHLBI funded covered the research continuum, including investigator-initiated science spanning basic preclinical science to better understand how the virus interacts with the body, animal models, clinical research, population science, and clinical trials to test novel therapeutics.

    Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP
    National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Director Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP

    In the Oct. 26 session, NIDDK Director Griffin Rodgers, MD, MACP, thanked Congress for its continued bipartisan support of the NIH and described his institute’s role in addressing some of the most common and burdensome diseases in the United States. The NIDDK’s portfolio includes the study of obesity, Type 1 diabetes, and chronic kidney diseases — all of which are associated with health disparities. Rodgers highlighted that the coronavirus has impacted the NIDDK in many ways, from having a disproportionate impact on patients with chronic diseases to halting clinical trials, losing opportunities to pursue new research, and derailing career advancement for young investigators.

    “While addressing the immediate challenges of COVID-19, we also need to keep our eye on that wrecking ball of diseases in NIDDK’s mission. Many of these diseases are risk factors for and are possible long-term complications of COVID-19 ... In addition, we must continue critical COVID-independent studies to serve all our stakeholders, as diseases in NIDDK’s mission will remain with us after the acute challenge of COVID-19 has passed. We must also continue to integrate the role of social determinants of health and health disparities as drivers in all of these activities,” Rodgers said.

    Previous presenters in the series represented the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the National Institute of Mental Health [see Washington Highlights, Oct. 9].