At a major conference on opioid addiction, the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday a new initiative to study the drug problem. A White House official, however, opted to focus on all that the administration has already done—not on what more it can still do.
Addressing a packed house at the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, the different speakers offered different views of the federal response to a crisis that continues to worsen. In 2016, more than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. The largest portions of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, as well as heroin.
Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, said his agency plans to spend $1.1 billion this fiscal year on researching treatments for pain and opioid addiction. That figure includes an extra $600 million that Congress allotted the agency late last month. "What we want to do is push this forward at a much more accelerated pace," Collins said during a speech.
The NIH's opioid research initiative, called Helping to End Addiction Long-Term, plans to cover a wide variety of projects: creating a more potent overdose-reversing medicine, studying what helps people stay sober, even developing a vaccine against opioid addiction. Over the past few years, research groups have tested such vaccines in mice and rats, but it's not yet known when they'll be ready for people to try. Drug development times can vary a lot, and many take more than a decade just to undergo the required human testing.
Collins also said the NIH would enter into partnerships with private companies to develop pain medications without addiction potential. Collins had promised to launch such partnerships last year, at the same conference. Since then, the NIH has met with companies and decided on priorities together, but hasn't yet embarked on any specific projects.
After Collins spoke, Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to President Donald Trump and the lead White House figure working on opioid addiction, took the stage. Perhaps because the White House had announced its latest opioid plan less than two weeks ago, there didn't seem to be much that was new for Conway to share. Instead, she reviewed what the administration has already done, mentioning Trump's call for the country to cut its painkiller prescriptions by one-third (which he issued in March); a government website where people affected by addiction can share their stories (which launched in November); and Trump's declaration of a public-health emergency around opioids (which he issued in October).
Much of the conference audience—which is comprised of people who work in addiction recovery, public-health researchers, and law enforcement—gave Conway a standing ovation when she finished. And many of them filed out before the next speaker, a representative from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, came onstage. The office was established in 1988, to fight the Reagan administration's War on Drugs, and is responsible for coordinating the nation's drug-control activity.
In February, Politico reported that Conway's work on addiction had excluded experts from the office and confused lawmakers about who to talk to about drug problems. In this case, Conway's speech seemed to have removed much of the audience's appetite for the ONDCP speech, which, after all, didn't announce anything new either.