House Passes The Heroes Act With $4.75 B in NIH Funding With At Least $3 B in Relief to Grantees to Offset Reduction in Lab Productivity, But Bill Unlikely to See Senate Action

On May 15, the House approved the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, also known as The Heroes Act (H.R. 6800), a $3 trillion package to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. It passed by a vote of 208 to 199, with one Republican voting in favor and 14 Democrats (primarily members of the Progressive Caucus) against the package.

The Heroes Act provides $4.745 billion to NIH to expand COVID-19 related research on the NIH campus and at academic institutions across the country. Within the $4.021 billion provided through September 2024 to the Office of the NIH Director to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically and internationally, NIH must spend “not less than $3 billion of the amount…for offsetting the costs related to reductions in lab productivity resulting from the coronavirus pandemic or public health measures related to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The House was being responsive to various requests from the research community and its champions for relief for NIH grantees, who have had to ramp-down research activities but still encountered lab maintenance costs, let alone the costs of “ramping up” research activities. These requests include:

  • An April 29 letter from Cong. Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Cong. Fred Upton (R-MI) to House leadership with nearly 200 bipartisan colleagues urging Congressional leadership to include $26 billion to support federal research agencies’ grantees. NAEVR endorsed that request.
  • An April 27 letter from the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research (to which NAEVR belongs) to House and Senate leadership urging the inclusion of $31 billion in emergency supplemental investments in NIH, detailing the needs as follows: additional COVID-19-related research; near-term response for ramping up NIH-supported research activities to preserve the momentum of the biomedical research enterprise; long-term investments; and enabling continuation of robust and necessary investments through regular appropriations.

Unfortunately, H. R. 6800 is not likely to pass the Senate as-is, since there was no bipartisan engagement during the drafting and negotiation of the House Democrats' bill. It was intended to prompt Senate Republicans to respond with their own package, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to put on the back-burner until he and his colleagues can evaluate the spending from earlier legislation. Senator McConnell told reporters he doesn’t yet feel the “urgency” to spend more money after Congress has delivered nearly $3 trillion in aid already, and that the Senate may consider more “targeted” legislation where needed.  This week, the Senate is expected to consider a handful of lifetime judicial appointments and then head home for the Memorial Day recess.

These have been and will continue to be uncertain times for biomedical research as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Congress has passed three supplemental packages that included COVID-19 vaccine development and related surveillance activities at NIH, they did not address research issues that scientific agency grantees face, including supplements to support ramp-down/ramp-up/lab maintenance costs, support for core research facilities, and funding for graduate students/postdoctoral fellowships.