Infectious Disease Research Institute Cuts Staff, Programs

Infectious Disease Research Institute Cuts Staff, Programs

The Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle has drastically cut back its programs and staff, leaving the development of vaccines for tuberculosis and leprosy and research on neglected tropical diseases in limbo, the New York Times reports.

Citing financial difficulties, the nonprofit institute laid off nearly a third of its employees, mainly researchers, the day before Thanksgiving, leaving them to find new homes for their research. For example, the National Institutes of Health had awarded a contract of up to $45 million to IDRI and two other institutions to study the body's immune response to TB. Emily Erbelding, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, told the Times her office had been in "near daily" communication with the institute to sort out how the research might continue.

Some researchers questioned the reasons IDRI gave for cutting programs funded by grants that covered research expenses and some administrative costs. "We have funded programs," said Malcolm Duthie, a senior scientist whose team was developing a leprosy vaccine with grants coordinated by the American Leprosy Missions. "And we've been given very short notice, which basically handcuffs us in terms of being able to take these programs somewhere else."

Corey Casper, the institute's acting CEO, told the Times the grants did not cover all overhead costs.

Founded in 1993 by Steven G. Reed — who played a role in the development of a GlaxoSmithKline TB vaccine that has shown promising results in clinical trials — the institute has struggled to close the gap between federal and private research grants and overhead costs and has operated at a loss for years — posting a deficit of about $4 million in both 2017 and 2016 and about $47,000 in 2018. Early this year, Reed stepped down as CEO following a spate of board and executive team resignations. According to the Times, former executives and board members described Reed as a passionate scientist but expressed concerns about his financial stewardship and potential conflicts of interest, including ties to for-profit companies to which the institute had licensed its technology.

Reed is helping raise funds to resuscitate the institute, while the board and its current leadership are vetting potential buyers or investors, the Times reports. If the organization survives, it is likely to focus on three main areas — adjuvants, which are used in some vaccines to stimulate the body's immune response; its manufacturing facility; and a technology known as RNA vaccines, which are also being pursued by for-profit companies. Meanwhile, the board has awarded Casper a four-year contract at an annual salary of $405,000, up from $365,000, with a $20,000 bonus, although Casper told the Times he was deferring the raise and would not take a bonus this year.

"We're a little bit in the dark right now as to how we are going to do this," said Tanya Parish, who oversaw IDRI's research on TB treatments and whose own position will be cut by year-end. "It sets us back at least six months," she added. "We have a lot of ongoing work that's been disrupted, and some work will have to be redone."

Katie Thomas. "Research Nonprofit Shutters TB Vaccine Effort and Lays Off Scientists." New York Times 12/13/2019.