Biden and biotech: Science first

The November election now seems such a long time ago: It has, in fact, been less than three months, but that time has been filled with political and scientific catastrophes that will shape President Joe Biden’s term in office.

The pandemic still rages on in the U.S. Whether this is a second wave, a third wave or a continuation of the first, there have been at least 400,000 deaths, and more than 3,000 people are dying every day from COVID-19, stats that blight an nation that has seen 24 million already infected.

The incoming Biden team has admonished outgoing President Donald’s Trump response, which has not favored masks or lockdowns and pushed for some drugs and treatments that proved of little efficacy. Trump’s own diagnosis and hospitalization with the disease in October served as a real low point.

Biden is coming in with COVID-19 top of the agenda. He is seeking to making 100 million shots against COVID-19 available in his first 100 days (though the exact logistics of this are not fully clear), and he has assembled a team of scientists to help lead the response, intentionally putting science first.

Biden is set to make Human Genome Project head Eric Lander, Ph.D., presidential science adviser as well as his nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

This will “task him to work broadly and transparently with the diverse scientific leadership of American society and make recommendations on how the Biden-Harris administration can harness the full power of science and technology on behalf of the American people,” the administration said in a statement ahead of the inauguration.

This has not always been a highly visual position, but now, for the first time, the role will be elevated to cabinet level. “Science will always be at the forefront of my administration and these world-renowned scientists will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth,” Biden said.

“Their trusted guidance will be essential as we come together to end this pandemic, bring our economy back, and pursue new breakthroughs to improve the quality of life of all Americans. Their insights will help America chart a brighter future, and I am grateful they answered the call to serve.”

The nomination of genome sequencing pioneer and Broad Institute alum Lander has generally been taken as a positive move by Biden, though he is not without baggage. A few years ago, he wrote a paper about the invention of genome-editing platform CRISPR but downplayed the role of two of the key female scientists involved in its creation, causing a major backlash.

This also serves, as do many in Biden’s administration, as another former Barack Obama pick, as during his administration Lander also served as the co-chair of Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

Lander does, however, have the ability to deal with big projects, and, with herd immunity to create with vaccinations, his help here could reshape how the pandemic is tackled and eventually ended.

Biden also brings on board Frances Arnold, Ph.D., and Maria Zuber, Ph.D., who will serve as the external co-chairs of PCAST. An expert in protein engineering, Arnold is the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Zuber, an expert in geophysics and planetary science, is the first woman to lead a NASA spacecraft mission and has chaired the National Science Board. They are the first women to serve as co-chairs of PCAST and form part of Biden’s wider attempt to create a more diverse and inclusive administration.

Francis Collins, M.D., meanwhile, stays on as director of the National Institutes of Health. It also looks more and more likely that FDA stalwart Janet Woodcock, M.D., who has been director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (but recently more focused on COVID-19 projects), will become the full-time FDA commissioner.

These picks and the major backing of science in general serves as a deliberate break from the Trump administration, which many in the scientific community saw as being anti-science. Bio Twitter let out a collective sigh of relief with these statements, but the hard work has barely begun.

There will be many more infections, deaths and long-term illness from COVID-19 before the major vaccination effort is completed; having the right people in place will serve to speed things up and make things run more smoothly, but the task ahead is daunting.

Biden, who has now had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, will likely be reminded over this term about how quickly pharma jumped in to save the country, the economy and the world,

During the annual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference last week, biopharma execs made it clear to Fierce Biotech that, while they will not be lording this over the government, it certainly will be a factor going forward.

Reminders over this, especially from the likes of Pfizer and others who didn’t get, or were not offered, government cash for their COVID-19 work, will likely be cropping up if Biden decides to crack down on drug pricing, for instance.

While some have done it alone, Biden could also remind the industry of the billions of dollars having been thrown at Operation Warp Speed—the project designed to speed up new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19—and many of these companies have delivered, including Moderna and its mRNA vaccine, which got a swift authorization at the end of 2020 in the U.S.

Warp Speed will, by all accounts, be reshaped by the Biden team with a new name and new leadership under former FDA chief David Kessler, M.D. The legacy of Warp Speed will remain controversial, and Biden will want to take this project and ramp up it early on in his administration.

Biden has repeatedly said that when it comes to the pandemic, he will “lead by the science,” and early signs suggest this will be true. Biotech will be pleased with this approach, but it shouldn’t think that this government, now Democrat-controlled and with some loud anti-pharma voices still vocal in the party, that its COVID-19 work will mean it gets a free ride for the next four years.