'Moonshot' 2.0: Biden announces new front in war on cancer

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WASHINGTON — Even as the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, the Biden administration is signaling a renewed determination to combat cancer, which killed more than 600,000 Americans in 2020. The new effort will signal a “reignition” of the “cancer moonshot” Biden began as vice president under Barack Obama, according to a White House memorandum distributed to reporters ahead of the president’s remarks on the subject scheduled for Wednesday.

“The president is going to set some very ambitious goals,” one senior administration official said in a preview of those remarks on Tuesday evening. Foremost will be the task of cutting cancer death rates in half in the next 25 years.

“What we’re really talking about from the administration side is mobilizing this effort as a presidential priority,” a second senior administration said.

President Biden.
President Biden at the White House on Monday. (Alex Brandon/AP) (AP)

Broadly, the new effort is a continuation of the one Biden was assigned by Obama in early 2016. For the most part, Biden’s work involved fostering public-private partnerships, including with biomedical giants, community organizations and academic institutions. That work was deeply imbued with personal grief, since the president’s son Beau had died the year before from brain cancer.

Joe Biden, accompanied by his family, holds his hand over his heart as he watches an honor guard carry a casket containing the remains of his son Beau Biden.

“We had access to the world’s best nurses, physicians, and researchers,” Biden said, reflecting on Beau’s illness in his report to Obama in late 2016. “And the more time we spent with them, the more we understood that even if we couldn’t save our son, the science, medicine, and technology are progressing faster than ever to save countless other sons and daughters.”

He later started the Biden Cancer Initiative, though operations were suspended once Biden decided to seek the presidency in 2019.

Given how complex the infrastructure of cancer research, treatment and care has become since President Nixon originally announced the “war on cancer,” not even an effort guided from the Oval Office can be truly centralized. Biden’s new plan calls for a “cancer Cabinet,” as well as a new federal agency for high-level research for which his administration is seeking $6.5 billion in seed funding. The president has named Danielle Carnival, a neuroscientist who worked on the 2016 cancer initiative, to oversee the moonshot’s second version.

Cancer deaths rates have fallen in the 21st century, in part because of reductions in smoking and the advent of novel treatments like immunotherapy. More than anything, the new Biden plan involves the coordination of those efforts as opposed to an entirely new approach or a huge, long-term injection of funding.

Joe Biden speaks during a meeting.
Biden at a 2016 meeting of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force at the White House. (Carolyn Kaster/AP) (AP)

The pandemic showed that researchers collaborating across countries and regulatory barriers could work to produce vaccines whose safety and efficacy are widely regarded as “a marvel of science.” The mRNA technology those vaccines, for the most part, use could itself offer a pathway for novel cancer treatments. More broadly, however, the pandemic offers a promising new model for science outside the bounds of established silos.

The response to the pandemic “points to things that are possible today,” the first administration official said.

The pandemic has also been devastating to cancer care in a more immediate sense, leading Americans to collectively miss some 9.5 million cancer screenings, experts estimate, because of concerns for hospital capacity and the safety of seeing patients in medical settings where the virus could spread.

“We need to get back on track,” the second administration official said. Not only that, but the new moonshot will seek to make screenings available in communities where high-quality health care has not been a reality for decades. A study published by researchers from the National Cancer Institute last year found that death rates from cancer were highest in the nation’s poorest counties.

Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden speaks in 2016 about the White House's cancer "moonshot" initiative. (Elise Amendola/AP) (AP)

Even as divisions over the pandemic seem to only deepen with each passing week, the Biden administration hopes that the battle against cancer will not invite similar controversy. “I gotta say, in these times of disagreements,” the first administration official said on Tuesday, “there’s certainly one thing on which we all agree on — across party lines, across everything — which is the effect of cancer on their lives. I know of nothing that unites us more, that is more bipartisan.”