Top scientists including Dr. Anthony Fauci recalled former President Bill Clinton's support for the National Institutes of Health as a catalyst for a "golden age" of biomedical research in a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Clinton School of Public Service on Tuesday.
Clinton sent measures to Congress that nearly doubled NIH funding to more than $20 billion during his time in office, money that boosted HIV/AIDS research. That infusion of funds, Fauci said, helped scientists in 1995 develop a three-drug treatment combination for HIV that Fauci described as a milestone. The new therapy, he said, changed the outlook for patients facing a disease that was, at the time, the leading cause of death for Americans age 25 to 44.
"What happened then was something that I have to tell you without hyperbole — every time I reflect back on that, I still get little bits of goosebumps," Fauci said. "Because I had been taking care of persons with HIV for those years, from 1981, right up until that time ... when that combination proved to be completely transforming in turning around the lives of persons with HIV."
While advances in HIV/AIDS treatment were developed, a vaccine that could prevent or contain the epidemic remained elusive, said virologist and immunologist Dr. Gary Nabel. The complexity of the virus had thwarted the "best and brightest" scientists around the world, he said, which led NIH leaders to approach Clinton about starting a dedicated center for vaccine research.
A few years after that meeting at the White House, the Dale & Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH opened in Bethesda, Maryland, and Nabel was recruited to be its first director. Nabel said Clinton was part of a group that "not only started the process but remained involved and nurtured its growth."
"We came to work each day knowing that a day saved in bringing a vaccine to the world saves 6,000 lives," Nabel said. "Those efforts extended not only to HIV, but also as we worked at the NIH, to other emerging health risks," including the first SARS outbreak, avian flu and the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus.
More recently, the NIH Vaccine Center worked with Moderna to accelerate development of the company's mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. Those kinds of public-private partnerships, Nabel said, have become an important model for biomedical collaboration.
Clinton said the billions in taxpayer money he directed to the NIH was "the best investment of my life." Not only did it expand vaccine development, it funded the Human Genome Project. From that international consortium came advances in human biology and disease research, along with genetic work in other fields including agriculture.
Clinton said there was surprisingly broad bipartisan support for his funding measures, even if some Republicans took convincing. On one occasion, House Speaker and future impeachment adversary Newt Gingrich rounded up 100 freshmen congressmen who, Clinton recalled, thought of the government as an "amorphous, evil blob" that would "mess up a two-car parade." The group was taken on a tour of the NIH, where a guide instructed them to lie in the beds and watch videos of all the life-saving initiatives the agency was pursuing.
Their sentiment soon changed.
"It was an elemental political observation, which was that everyone wants to go to heaven this morning, but nobody wants to die, and we all want to live as long as we can," Clinton said. "And it was brilliant.
"All of the sudden, we had no problems getting the Republicans to vote for the NIH budget.”
Clinton described funding the NIH as "living in the present for the future." He sees another example of tension between the present and the future in President Joe Biden's budget, which calls for more pandemic preparedness but has been met with opposition by Republicans concerned about spending. Biden has proposed increasing the NIH budget by 10% to $62.5 billion.
During the panel discussion, Clinton thanked Fauci for his vaccine advocacy during the pandemic, saying the nation's top infectious disease expert has been "trying to talk common sense in the middle of nonsense," alluding to the deluge of conspiracy theories and misinformation he's confronted.
"I'm amazed you’re still standing after all you’ve been through these past two years," Clinton said.
A vaccine for HIV/AIDS still has not been developed, but thanks to an NIH collaboration, one could finally be in sight. The mRNA technology that NIH helped Moderna develop is now being used for a vaccine that prompts white blood cells to turn into antibodies that can neutralize HIV.
Moderna began human clinical trials in January.