Eric Lander painted a rosy near future in his first interview after being sworn in on Wednesday, in which a renewed American emphasis on science not only better prepare the world for the next pandemic with plug-and-play vaccines, but also changes how medicine fights disease and treats patients, curbs climate change, and expands space exploration. He even made a Star Trek allusion.
“This is a moment in so many ways, not just health when we can reassess fundamental assumptions about what is achievable, and that is true of climate, energy, and many other areas,” Lander told The Associated Press.
On a 500-year-old portion of the Mishnah, an ancient Jewish scripture that documents oral traditions and regulations, Lander took his oath of office. He is the first director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to be elevated to the Cabinet-level.
President Joe Biden’s ascension to the scientific job, according to Lander, is a symbolic demonstration “that science should have a place at the table,” but it also allows him to engage in higher-level discussions about research concerns with other agencies directors.
Lander is a trained mathematician and geneticist who led the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard and was a part of the human genome mapping effort. He stated that he is more concerned with the lessons learned from this epidemic in order to prepare for the next one.
“It was fantastic on one level that we were able to generate extremely potent vaccinations in less than a year, but on the other hand, a year is a long time,” Lander said, noting that it had previously taken three or four years. “We want to get this done in 100 days to make a big difference. As a result, many of us have been talking about a 100-day deadline from the time a virus with pandemic potential is identified.”
Long before the pandemic, scientists were developing so-called “all-purpose ready-to-go platform technologies” for vaccinations. They’re referred to as “plug-and-play.” These platforms employ other molecules to deliver a germ’s genetic information into the body rather than employing the germ itself to generate a vaccine. That’s what happened with the messenger RNA-carrying Covid-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.
Lander is hopeful about dealing with future pandemics, but he is concerned about the consequences for cancer prevention.
“Perhaps the same type of experience of advancing so much quicker than we imagined is relevant to cancer,” said Lander, who served as co-chair of the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama administration. A business has already started working on it.
In some ways, the epidemic and telemedicine brought the doctor to the patients. Lander said he’s imagining “a future where we rearrange a lot of things” to provide better patient-centered health care, such as community health professionals checking on people’s blood pressure, blood sugar, and other chronic conditions every few weeks.
Lander was acclaimed by two of his predecessors. Because of the necessity for a plan and international agreements, Neal Lane, President Bill Clinton’s scientific adviser, said Lander is “ideal” for the epidemic. John Holden, Obama’s scientific adviser, referred to him as a “renaissance guy.”
Senators sought more information about Lander’s meetings with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of sex trafficking, as well as Lander’s comments that were thought to minimize the contributions of two Nobel Prize-winning female scientists. 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.
Lander described climate change as “a very significant danger to this planet in many, many ways” after visiting Greenland on a pleasant 72-degree day.
Solar and energy wind costs have dropped by nearly 90%, making them as inexpensive as the fossil fuels that cause climate change, according to Lander. But, he added, there is also a need for an “explosion of ideas” to enhance battery life and deliver carbon-free, weather-independent electricity. Those breakthroughs, he added, require governmental incentives, which are included in Biden’s jobs proposal.
Lander noted that reducing methane emissions is critical to combating climate change, but that first-generation technology is needed to pinpoint where methane is seeping.
Lander said he was too fresh to comment on whether the objective should be to get to the moon or Mars. NASA was pushed by the Obama administration away from the Bush-era goal to return people to the moon and toward Mars or an asteroid. The Trump administration not only returned its attention to the moon but also established a target for a new lunar landing in 2024.
“Are we going to the moon? Are we going to Mars? Are we heading to Jupiter’s moons? Yes, of course. Lander stated, “I believe the precise sequence is excellent to think about or excellent to discuss.”
When Captain James T. Kirk’s love interest questioned if he was from outer space, he recalled “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” “I’m from Iowa, and I solely work in space,” he said.
“That was a wonderful phrase in ‘Star Trek IV,’ but people in Iowa are actually going to say that,” Lander adds.”