One of the NIH funded research projects that has been bandied about with much glee from the right wing, in the wake of Francis Collins' unfortunate assertion about Ebola research and the flatlined NIH budget, is the "Origami Condom". It shows why NIH Director Collins should have known better. The Origami Condom sounds trivial and ridiculous, right? "Origami". hahah. Oooh, "condom". Wait, what are we, 12 year olds?
Rand Paul provides a convenient example.
"We have people who go blithely on TV and say we don't have enough money to study Ebola. Have you seen what the NIH spends money on?" Paul, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, said at a campaign rally for Republican congressional candidates...And the NIH spent $2.4 million for an "Origami condom," said Paul, who said he spared folks in the room an explanation because it was a family audience.
Also because he didn't want to have to explain some simple facts. Such as
- Condom use promotes public health by limiting the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. It can also contribute to reproduction control and choice which also has a host of beneficial effects on individuals and society. There is no way to view this domain as anything other than clearly relevant to public health goals. This is clearly a legitimate area for NIH expenditure from this standpoint.
-Condom use has, for various reasons, a clear failure rate .
"We chronically underestimate how complicated condom use can be," University of Kentucky professor Richard Crosby, who co-authored the study, said in a statement. "It involves the use of a condom, while negotiating the condom use and sex with a partner all at the same time."
Consequently, anything that seeks to improve the proper use of condoms is obviously non-frivolous as a goal.
So, let's head over to NIH RePORTER and check on the NIH awards in support of the Origami Condom. I find three 2-year grants all awarded to Daniel Resnic from 2009-2012. These are all SBIR grants, of the R43 mechanism type. This is important. On the SBIR program:
United States Congress created the SBIR program in 1982 and the STTR program in 1992. These programs congressionally require eligible governmental agencies to set aside a percentage of their extramural budget so that domestic small businesses can engage in R&D that has a strong potential for technology commercialization.
Note, this is a Congressional mandate, not a NIH choice.
Federal agencies with extramural research budgets over $100 million are required to set-aside a certain percentage of their budget to SBIR, and those with research budgets over $1 billion are required to set aside a portion of these funds for STTR. In 2014, the set-aside for SBIR is 2.8% and STTR is 0.40%. The set-aside increases each year through 2017 as a result of the SBIR/STTR Reauthorization Act of 2011.
So we now know that while these Origami Condom funds might have been spent on the commercialization phase of an Ebola vaccine, they would not have been available to all other non-commercial research on Ebola. Were there any Ebola therapies ready for commercialization from 2008-2010 when these applications went in? Only those could have been affected.
The first project is R43 AI084145-01A1:
The purpose of this project is to research, refine and test three prototypes of the origami RAI condom, an RAI (receptive anal intercourse) condom made of a biocompatible, viral-impermeable silicone, which may provide better sensation and less breakage than latex products and provide maximum protection against viral transmission. Three prototypes will be injection-molded and pre-clinically tested for biocompatibility and structural integrity. The origami RAI condom is intended to: 1. Facilitate a pleasurable and safe RAI sexual experience for both partners, 2. Increase the acceptability of condoms among those who practice anal intercourse and are at risk of HIV / STIs, 3. Encourage and increase consistent and correct use for those who practice anal intercourse and 4.Provide a receptive-partner-controlled strategy for HIV prevention.
Seriously, we're done here. This is a defensible project on the basis of its goals, and our aforementioned review of condom contributions to health. The video demo (slightly NSFW) suggests deployment ease and speed is a goal, their website insists that there is nothing on the market other than the traditional rolled latex condom and the project abstract finishes with:
...the primary objective of this Study is to research the feasibility and acceptability of the origami RAI CONDOM: a new biocompatible, viral-impermeable, silicone, anorectally inserted condom, intended to provide an alternative to male latex condoms and increase acceptability and compliance for consumers at risk of HIV/STIs. Its user-friendly design is intended to introduce a pleasurable, more acceptable, receptive- partner-controlled barrier and to encourage its use.
After this, we can of course argue the merits of the particular application, whether it is likely to help this product hit the market, whether it will work.
But what seem inarguable to me is that this is a project that is clearly within the Public Health mission of the NIH, the problem it is addressing is real and there is some possibility this might turn into a useful enhancer for public health.
It is not obviously frivolous.
Of course, rightwing opponents of public research expenditures are traditional bashers of anything having to do with HIV/AIDS. And of course they aren't too hot on contraception either. So I can see where this would be a hotbutton issue for them, given that they find the area of public health to be.....objectionable. They think their answer of "Don't do that" should be completely sufficient. On this they are of course in error.
Additional Note: The PI for the Origami Condom awards, Daniel Resnic, has been accused of being a con man, of misusing Federal grant funds.
a former employee is alleging that Resnic spent grant money for his personal use and acted against rules for clinical studies, having friends try out his condoms and report back.
Obviously either of those things, if true, are serious problems. However they mean absolutely nothing as to the wisdom or frivolity of NIH awarding this SBIR project. Such fraud and misuse can occur with any grantee or for that matter anyone who fulfills any sort of government contract.
Final Note: Journalists, please. I am talking to you. It takes about five minutes of googling to look up the information and less than 1 minute of casual thought to connect the dots. Stop with this silly he-said/she-said, lazy reporting. Put some muscle into it.