One might expect that when a global pandemic strikes, the federal government’s vast, and well-funded, research lab complex would drop (just about) everything and focus on the health crisis at hand.

Turns out, the biggest player in the health research complex, the grant-making national Institutes of Health, was AWOLwhile COVID-19 was on the loose:

…just 2 percent of the more than 56,000 grants issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during 2020 went to projects studying COVID-19, even as the virus killed thousands of Americans and ransacked the global economy. That’s the conclusion of a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Penn State University that’s been accepted (but not yet peer-reviewed or published) by The BMJ, a Britain-based medical journal.

“In the first year of the pandemic, the NIH diverted a small fraction of its budget to COVID-19 research,” the researchers conclude. “Future health emergencies will require research funding to pivot in a timely fashion and funding levels to be proportional to the anticipated burden of disease in the population.”

So where, if not to the emergency at hand, did the agency’s largesse go?

The 1,108 grants awarded for studying COVID-19 accounted for just 5.3 percent of the NIH’s $42 billion budget in 2020, according to the report. The NIH dedicated significantly more funding toward behavioral and social science research than coronaviruses during 2020. Studies of rare diseases received about 2.5 times as much funding as coronavirus research, while research into aging got more than twice as much funding.

Meaning the bureaucratic wheels were mired in red tape:

“From the beginning, the institutional response [to COVID-19] has been lethargic,” wrote Cowen, Collison, and Hsu in a June 2021 blog post reviewing their project. “We found that scientists—among them the world’s leading virologists and coronavirus researchers—were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe.”

Specifically, they pointed to the fact that NIH grant applications require three phases of review by as many as 20 different scientists. No one is harmed by a long review process for a project that gives blow to birds, but the COVID-19 pandemic required a speedier response that wasn’t possible for creaky government bureaucracies. “It is difficult for these bodies, such as the NIH, to adapt as circumstances change,” the trio concluded.

The new research from Johns Hopkins and Penn State seems to confirm what Cowen, Collison, and Hsu were seeing on the ground as the pandemic hit. The public health bureaucracy’s failure to rapidly respond to a once-in-a-generation crisis likely slowed crucial research, left scientists in the dark about how the coronavirus spreads, and created space for misinformation to reign.

The public health bureaucracy covered itself in shame during the pandemic. A thorough review, and public accounting, of its many missteps needs to occur now…before the next pandemic arrives on our shores.