Fight over where to house ARPA-H still brews with House bill's passage
The Biden administration isn’t backing down from its desire to keep a new drug accelerator, known as ARPA-H, inside the National Institutes of Health.
But the House on Wednesday passed a bill by an overwhelming bipartisan majority (336 to 85) to make this new accelerator a standalone agency.
Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the author of the House bill, made clear that the separation from NIH is intentional, saying in a statement that “the House passed my ARPA-H legislation to create a new agency with the authorities and autonomy it needs to be successful and ensuring it will be a nimble, dynamic, and independent agency.”
Biden officials, meanwhile, remain supportive of the bill in general but are still pushing for a tweak to put ARPA-H under the NIH umbrella, saying in a statement:
In order to successfully conduct impactful research on diseases like cancer or mental health conditions, it is critical that ARPA-H is stood up in a timely and efficient manner. At the same time, we need to allow this nascent agency to be nimble, dynamic, and adaptive. To that end, the Administration supports an approach that provides the agency with flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and believes that leveraging the National Institutes of Health’s existing infrastructure would provide for the most efficient administration of the program’s goals. The Administration is concerned by the provision that would enable ARPA-H to bypass the process for ensuring that communications with Congress are accurate and reflect the views of the Executive Branch.
But lawmakers are already plotting ARPA-H’s autonomous future, with or without the White House’s support, with 2023 funding plans for $2.75 billion for the accelerator, an increase of $1.75 billion above the initial $1 billion, which appropriators said will go “to accelerate the pace of scientific breakthroughs” for diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cancer.
Biden had initially requested $6.5 billion for this currently NIH-housed research outfit, which is going to mirror DARPA with risky investments.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and other Republicans stood behind the House bill too, with Upton saying, “ARPA-H can provide the breakthrough to indeed find cures for all these diseases. The president has signed funding for this agency into law, now we need the bipartisan authorization so the researchers can get to work.”
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra late last month, however, sought to formally announce the establishment of the ARPA-H, known formally as the Advanced Research Project Agency for Health, as an entity within the NIH, although HHS had previously sought to keep the new research arm somewhat independent, stipulating that “NIH may not subject ARPA-H to NIH policies.”
Becerra also announced the appointment of ARPA-H’s inaugural employee, Adam Russell, who will serve as acting deputy director. Russell, a former DARPA manager and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, will begin to construct a new agency that has eyed big, transformative work in the life sciences space from the beginning, continually promising “high-risk, high-reward research” on hard-to- or expensive-to-treat diseases, with promises of “biomedical and health breakthroughs.”
With this new funding, the Biden team still has to come up with the first director of ARPA-H, and where its headquarters will be located.