The new White House scientific adviser wants to have a vaccine ready to fight the next pandemic in about 100 days after recognizing a potential viral outbreak.
In his first interview after being sworn in Wednesday, Eric Lander painted a near pink future where a renewed American emphasis on science not only prepares the world for the next pandemic with plug-and-play vaccines, but also changes how medicine fights diseases and treats patients, slows down climate change and further explores space. He also launched a “Star Trek” reference.
“This is a time in so many ways, not just for health, that we can rethink the fundamental assumptions about what is possible and what is true of climate and energy and of many areas,” Lander told l ‘Associated Press.
Lander took his office oath on a 500-year-old fragment of the Mishnah, an ancient Hebrew text documenting oral traditions and laws. He is the first director of the Office of Science and Technology to be promoted to the Cabinet level.
Lander said the elevation of the science post by President Joe Biden is a symbolic spectacle “that science should have a place at the table” but also allows him to hold higher-level discussions with various agency leaders. to make policy.
Lander is a trained mathematician and geneticist who was part of the human genome mapping project and directed the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard. He said he is particularly focused not so much on this pandemic, but the lessons learned from it to prepare for the next one.
It has been amazing on one level that we can produce highly effective vaccines in less than a year, but from another point of view you will say, ‘Boy, a year from so long,’ even though in the past it would have taken three or four years. years, Lander said. “To really make a difference, we want to get this done in 100 days. And so many of us are talking about a 100-day target from recognition by a virus with pandemic potential. ”
“It would mean we would have had a vaccination in early April if that had happened this time around, in early April 2020,” Lander said. “It makes you gulp for a second, but it’s totally feasible to do that.”
Scientists were working on so-called ready-to-use platform technologies for vaccines long before the pandemic. They are considered “plug-and-play”. Instead of using the germ itself to make a vaccine, they use messenger RNA and add the genetic code for the germ. That’s what happened with the Pfizer and Modern COVID-19 shots.
In addition to being optimistic about facing future pandemics, Lander wonders about the implications for preventing cancer.
“Perhaps the same kind of experience to move so much faster than we thought applicable to cancer,” said Lander, who during the Obama administration was co-chair of the Presidential Council on Science and Technology. A company has already worked on this.
For that matter, the pandemic and telehealth have brought the doctor to patients in some ways. Lander said he will rethink “a world where we reorganize a lot of things” to get more patient-centered health care, including community employees who check people every few weeks on their blood pressure, sugar in blood and other chronic problems.
Two of Lander’s predecessors praised him. Neal Lane, a scientific adviser to President Bill Clinton, said Lander is “perfect” for the pandemic because of the need for a strategy and international agreements. John Holden, Obama’s head of science, called him “a man of the Renaissance.”
Lander’s appointment had been delayed for months as senators sought more information about the meetings he had had with defender Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who had been accused of sex trafficking before his apparent suicide. Lander said he has only met with Epstein twice, in 2012, and has never asked for or received funding from Epstein or its foundation. At his confirmation hearing, Lander also apologized for a 2016 article he wrote that minimized the work of two Nobel Prize-winning scientists.
Lander, who visited Greenland on a calm 72-degree day, told the AP that he sees climate change as “an incredibly serious threat to this planet in many, many ways.”
However, Lander said he was more optimistic now that he and others were about a decade ago because “I see a way to do something about this.”
Lander has indicated a drop of about 90% in solar and wind energy costs, which makes them now as economical as the fossil fuels that cause climate change. But he said there also needs to be an “explosion of ideas” to improve battery life and provide carbon-free energy that is not dependent on the weather. These innovations require federal incentives that are part of the package for Biden jobs, he said.
Reducing methane is the key to fighting climate change, Lander added, but early improvements are needed in technology to determine where methane escapes.
As for space, Lander said it was too new to comment on whether going to the moon or Mars should be the goal. The Obama administration redirected NASA away from the Bush-era plan to send astronauts to the moon and it was more destined for Mars or an asteroid. The Trump administration has not only focused on the moon, but has set a 2024 target for a new moon landing.
“Are we going to go to the moon and go to Mars and go to the moons of Jupiter? Of course. The exact order I think is big to think or big to talk about,” Lander said.
He quoted “Star Trek IV: The Home Voyage,” when Captain James T. Kirk’s amorous interest asked if he was out of space. He replied, “I’m from Iowa. I only work in space.”
Adds Lander: “It was a fun line in ‘Star Trek IV,’ but people in Iowa will really tell it.”