New White House science advisers want a vaccine ready to fight the next pandemic in about 100 days after recognizing a potential viral outbreak.
In his first interview since taking the oath on Wednesday, Eric Lander painted a rosy future where the renewed American emphasis on science not only helps with plug-and-play vaccines to better prepare the world for the next pandemic. but also transforms how medicine fights disease and treats patients, curbs climate change and further exploration of space. He also threw in a “Star Trek” reference.
“It’s a moment, not just health, but in many ways, a moment that allows us to rethink fundamental assumptions about what’s possible and that’s true in climate and energy and many sectors,” Lander told the Associated Press.
Lander took the oath of office on a 500-year-old fragment of the Mishnah, an ancient Jewish text documenting oral traditions and laws. He is the first director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to be promoted to the cabinet level.
Lander said President Joe Biden’s elevation to the science post is a symbolic show “that science should have a seat at the table” but also allows him to hold high-level conversations with various agency heads about policy-making.
Lander is a mathematician and geneticist who was part of the Human Genome Mapping Project by training and directed the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. He said that he is not focusing so much on this pandemic in particular, but the lessons learned from it to prepare for the next one.
“It was amazing on one level that we were able to produce highly effective vaccines in less than a year, but from another point of view you would say, ‘Boy, a year’s a long time,'” even though it has been three years in the past. It will take years or four years, the lander said. “To really make a difference we want to do it in 100 days. And that’s why a lot of us are talking about a 100-day target from recognition of a virus with pandemic potential.”
“This would mean that we would have a vaccine in early April, if it were this time, then in early April 2020,” Lander said. “It makes you gossip for a second, but it’s totally possible to do so.”
Scientists were working on so-called all-purpose ready-to-go platform technologies for vaccines long before the pandemic. They are considered “plug-and-play”. Instead of using the germ to make a vaccine, they use messenger RNA and add the genetic code to the germ. That’s what happened with Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 Shots.
In addition to being optimistic about facing future pandemics, the lander thinks about the implications of preventing cancer.
Lander, who was co-chair of the Advisory Council on Science and Technology during the Obama administration, said, “Maybe the experience of moving forward much faster than we thought applies to cancer.” One company is already working on this.
For that matter, the pandemic and telehealth have brought the doctor to patients in some ways. Lander said he is re-imagining “a world where we rearrange a lot of things” to achieve more patient-centered health care, in which community health workers check people every few weeks for their blood pressure, Checks for blood sugar and other chronic problems.
He was praised by the two predecessors of the lander. President Bill Clinton’s science adviser Neil Lane said the lander is “right” for the pandemic because of the need for strategy and international agreements. Obama’s science chief John Holden called him “a renaissance man.”
Lander’s nomination was delayed for months as senators sought more information about his meetings with the late Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who had been accused of sex trafficking before his apparent suicide. Lander said he only met Epstein twice, in 2012, and never solicited or received funding from Epstein or his foundation. At her confirmation hearing, Lander also apologized for a 2016 article she wrote that undermined the work of two Nobel Prize-winning female scientists.
The lander, which visited Greenland on a 72-degree day, told the AP that it sees climate change as “an incredibly serious threat to the planet in many ways.”
Still, Lander said he was more optimistic now than he was a decade ago because “I see a way to do something about it.”
The lander pointed to a nearly 90% drop in solar and wind energy costs, making them now as cheap as the fossil fuels that cause climate change. But he added that an “explosion of ideas” is also needed to improve battery life and provide carbon-free energy that is not weather-dependent. Those innovations that need federal incentives are part of Biden’s employment package, he said.
Reducing methane is important for fighting climate change, Lander said, but improvements in technology are needed first to determine where the methane is leaking from.
As for space, the lander said he was too new to comment on whether going to the Moon or Mars should be the goal. The Obama administration redirected NASA away from a Bush-era plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and was more targeted towards Mars or an asteroid. The Trump administration not only focused on the Moon, but set a target of 2024 for the new moon landing.
The lander said, “Are we going to the Moon and are we going to Mars and are we going to the moons of Jupiter? Certainly. I think it’s good to think about the exact sequence or talk that’s good.”
He cited “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” when Captain James T. Kirk’s love interest asks if he is from outer space. He replied: “I’m from Iowa, I only work in outer space.”
Adds Lander: “It was a funny line in ‘Star Trek IV,’ but people in Iowa are really going to say that.”
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