UPDATED: Government shutdown halts NIH research, CDC disease surveillance

With Congress at an impasse over budget negotiations, the U.S. federal government on Oct. 1 halted operations deemed nonessential, bringing clinical trials, research of life-threatening diseases and disease-monitoring programs to a standstill.

According to a Department of Health and Human Services contingency plan, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will stop accepting new patients into clinical trials and will not take any action on research grant applications or awards. NIH is discouraging researchers from submitting paper or electronic grant applications throughout the period of the lapse. However, researchers with existing NIH grants will not be barred from accessing their funds, according to HHS.

The agency will continue patient care for current NIH Clinical Center patients in Bethesda, MD, but it won't be able to accept new patients. It will also continue animal care services to NIH animals used for biomedical research.

Translational research, training of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at NIH facilities, scientific meetings and travel of NIH scientists to scientific meetings will also be suspended under the government shutdown. For scientists that have to maintain cell and animal cultures, the shutdown means putting a hold on experiments and likely starting over when the freeze lifts.  

PubMed, an NIH-supported database comprising more than 23 million citations for biomedical literature, will continue functioning amid the shutdown with minimal staff, according to the website.

In a blow to disease monitoring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will have to forgo its annual seasonal influenza surveillance program just as the flu season is beginning. The CDC's ability to prepare for disease outbreaks, including the H7N9 flu or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), could potentially be hampered as the agency will be unable to support state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance.

In its contingency plan, HHS said it will have to furlough 40,512 employees while retaining 37,686 staff members. That equates to 52% furloughed HHS employees compared to 48% that would be retained.

It remains to be seen how long the government shutdown will last. Negotiations have stalled after lawmakers missed the Oct. 1 deadline to avoid the shutdown, but Congress members are back at it. A "bipartisan committee" in the House has been tasked with coming up with a proposal, and on Oct. 2, House Republicans introduced a bill that would restore NIH funding through December and permit the agency to resume enrollment in clinical trials. 

The Democrat-controlled Senate will almost certainly reject any deal that threatens to defund Obamacare, which began rolling out at the beginning of the month. Federal employees will go unpaid until a final budget is passed.

- here's the HHS contingency plan (PDF)

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