New White House science advisers want a vaccine ready to fight the next pandemic in about 100 days after recognizing a potential viral outbreak.
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 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 are 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 perspective you would say, ‘Boy, a year is a long time,’ even though in the past it was three years. It will take years or four years, the lander said. “We want to do it in 100 days to really make a difference. 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 swallows you up for a second, but it’s totally possible to do that.”
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 Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration, said, “Maybe the experience of moving forward much faster than we thought is applicable to cancer.” on that.
For that matter, the pandemic and telehealth 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.
Lander’s confirmation was delayed for months as senators sought more information about his meetings with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sex trafficking, as well as comments from Lander thought to be two Nobel Prizes. The award was thought to undermine the contributions of women scientists.
After visiting Greenland on a 72-degree day, the lander called climate change “an incredibly serious threat to this 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.
“Are we going to the moon and are we going to Mars and are we going to the moons of Jupiter? Sure. I think it’s great to think or talk about the exact sequence,” the lander he said.
He quotes “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.”
AP Medical Writer Lauren Niergaard contributed to this report.
Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.
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