U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both D-MA, dispatched a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week to figure out when opioid treatment research programs will be reopened and how NIH will alleviate disruptions caused by COVID-19.
Those disruptions come despite the fact that, since the outbreak of COVID-19, more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality and follow what the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) reported as an opioid overdose death increase of over 70,000 in 2019. Reports have indicated that some behavioral health and addiction treatment studies run by NIH have been put on hold, something the senators worry could negatively affect those struggling with opioid use disorder.
“We are concerned that this postponement will impact the results of this crucial research to the detriment of those struggling with opioid use disorder (OUD),” the senators wrote. “In light of the growing number of opioid overdoses and deaths, it is crucial this research be completed in a timely manner so that those struggling with OUD may receive the high-quality, evidence-based treatment they need.”
In particular, the senators pointed to fears that Black and Brown communities have struggled the most with this crisis. Given that many of these NIH programs would study disparities in access to behavioral health treatments and how to improve the availability of medication-assisted treatment to those imprisoned, this seems likely to only worsen.
“These programs could help develop new techniques to better treat people struggling with OUD and help inform policymakers work to end the opioid epidemic,” Warren said in a statement. “NIH has not yet released information regarding the status of these paused programs nor how the delay may affect the studies’ outcomes.”
In response, Warren and Markey have asked for details on how many studies have been delayed, canceled, or otherwise impacted by the ongoing epidemic, their anticipated resumption dates, and what NIH would need additional resources to guarantee the research could continue safely.