We have the technology needed to identify most emerging viruses and their origins, speeding up recognition and intervention, but we stall. The answer is simple: politics and money. In Wired, the writer Maryn McKenna explains that governments almost always seek to evade blame for global health threats within their borders rather than promote transparency: “Information can outrun deadly new diseases, but only if it’s allowed to spread.” These threats are expensive to find, test and contain. And even if labs have the time, they’re short on personnel and cash.
Sequestration in the U.S. hasn’t helped. Automated federal spending cuts in 2012 reduced the National Institutes of Health’s annual budget by 5.5%, to $29.1 billion. Labs have felt the pinch of fewer research grants, with directors ending half-completed projects, foregoing others altogether and trying to keep their staffs relatively intact. That was all worsened by the government shutdown on Oct. 1, which also marked the start of flu season. About 9,000 of the CDC’s 15,000 workers have been forloughed. Thomas Frieden, the CDC’s director, tells TIME that several staffers are still working in Saudi Arabia, but the lack of resources back home is inhibiting their research.
Frieden’s tone is anguished. The shutdown hasn’t just “derailed” the agency’s capacity to find, stop and prevent health problems, but “undermined” its ability to work with local and state authorities. Bi-weekly calls with state health agencies about global threats have stopped and concern is high that should an emergency come up, any response would be delayed. Illustrating the impact, he likens the CDC to a ship lost at sea. “You can go a day or two without your navigation system—you won’t get too far off-track,” he says. “If you go a week or two, you could end up in very dangerous waters.” Now his biggest worry is what they’re missing: “We can respond to emergencies, but we don’t have our systems to find them reliably.”
Lipkin, who advises the NIH director, puts it bluntly: “There’s no money for science in the United States.” It’s hard to see effects on his office-lab setup at Columbia—the floors buzz with white coats handling vials or waiting for costly machines to spit out results as others slog away on computers. Sequestration forced him to reallocate other funding to MERS research and pushed back the hire of another researcher, but the shutdown means new tests on ungulate samples—he says the surveillance focus should shift to livestock and wildlife—will be outsourced through mobile labs he’s helping send to Saudi Arabia. “We’re wrestling with these challenges of trying to find ways to do as much, if not more, with less,” he says. “And it’s tough.”
In the meantime, doctors are keeping up with threats as best they can. This virus isn’t a pandemic yet, and some believe that MERS may lack the ability to truly threaten the world. But the potential is there. “If it does,” says Connie Price, the infectious disease chief at Denver Health Medical Center who aided epidemiology efforts in Al-Hasa, “I guess it’s on us.” And the generations that come after us.