President Biden Makes Immediate Changes To U.S. Science Policy

12:13 minutes

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.
President Biden speaking at the inauguration. Credit: Shutterstock

This story is part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

This week’s peaceful transition of power from one administration to another was a win for democracy, but it was also a win for science. Among his first acts in the Oval Office, President Biden signed executive orders allowing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, and put the brakes on plans for the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge

And there will be more policy changes to come, as the president considers signing a new set of orders designed to ramp up U.S. COVID vaccination efforts in the coming days and weeks. 

Umair Irfan, staff reporter for Vox, discusses the major science policy news of the week. Plus, an update on new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and what scientists have discovered about coronavirus immunity.  

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. This week was a win for democracy, and also a win for science. On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci resurfaced with authority. Dominating a White House news conference, he spoke about returning to decision making, based on evidence backed science, and set out and expanded science driven battle against COVID-19. Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, is here to discuss the reinvigorated science direction, as well as other science news headlines over the week. Hi, Umair.


IRA FLATOW: I want to start with a piece of what Dr. Fauci said yesterday.

ANTHONY FAUCI: I mean, obviously, I don’t want to be going back over history. But it was very clear that there were things that were said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things like that, really was uncomfortable, because they were not based on scientific fact.

I can tell you, I take no pleasure at all in being in a situation of contradicting the president. So it was really something that you didn’t feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it. The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence– what the science is, and know that’s it– let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.

IRA FLATOW: Umair, liberating to Dr. Fauci, certainly refreshing to the science community now.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, he certainly seemed like he was in a great mood. But also, he was a lot more blunt and a bit more Frank than we’ve heard him talking before, a little bit more about how we are likely to continue seeing a rise in new cases and fatalities as vaccines roll out, as well as some of the uncertainties that we’re dealing with, particularly around things like the new variants of the coronavirus that are circulating.

IRA FLATOW: Fauci also talked about greatly expanding the weak and confusing vaccination rollout.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We certainly are not starting from scratch, because there is activity going on in the distribution. But if you look at the plan that the president has put forth about the things that he is going to do– namely get community vaccine centers up, get pharmacies more involved, where appropriate, get the Defense Production Act involved, not only perhaps with getting more vaccine, but even the things you need to get a good vaccine program. So it’s taking what’s going on, but amplifying it in a big way.

IRA FLATOW: Umair, I picked out of that. Fauci seemed to be careful about not totally dismissing the efforts of the federal government so far, but building on top of that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, that’s one of the big changes we’re seeing between the Trump administration and the Biden administration. The Trump administration was much more hands off, and really did not see a big role for central planning and management from the federal government. And from the outset, President Biden has been talking about a much larger federal role, with the government getting involved, as Dr. Fauci said, in things like production of supplies, and also distribution and setting up these centers, using government, federal government authorities, to actually do the delivery of these things like vaccines.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on a little bit to digging into this week’s COVID news. Some concerning updates about those new COVID variants? Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. We’ve seen now several different variants emerge around the world. And it turns out, several of them have very similar mutations in them. And this is an example of convergent evolution. And it seems like these mutations are related to a phenomenon that helped the virus actually spread a little bit more readily. This means it’s a little bit more transmissible.

The virus itself is not becoming more dangerous. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to make individuals sicker. But because it can spread more readily, it can cause more stress on health systems. But one variant in particular started standing out a bit more. And this is the one that was found in South Africa. This variant also has mutations that make it more readily able to elude prior immunity.

Scientists were testing plasma they collected from people who survived prior COVID-19 infections and tested it against this new strain. And they found that it didn’t really offer that good protection. And also, some of the researchers that are developing treatments, particularly monoclonal antibodies, these therapies are very targeted to very specific parts of the virus. And if those specific parts change, then those therapies are less effective. And one of the therapy manufacturers, Regeneron said that one of the two antibodies in its cocktail no longer recognizes this new strain.

The other one still does, which means the treatment will likely still work. But it shows how immunity and protection can start to wane against these newer variations.

IRA FLATOW: So they might have to tweak the formulations?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. We’re expecting to see a certain level of change in mutation and viruses over a period of time. And scientists said, this is something we saw coming. But these variants now show us a path towards how that might happen. And some scientists are suggesting that the vaccines, even though they are still effective, as far as we know, against the New variants, over time we, may need to start thinking about how we could reprogram them to start tackling the more current variations of the virus that are circulating. And some have suggested that might happen as soon as this fall.

IRA FLATOW: And on the plus side is that immunity seems to last several months?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. We have some new research we announced this week that showed that at least several months of protection lasts from prior infections to this virus. There was a study in the United Kingdom that looked at about 20,000 different health workers, and they found that the level of reinfection among people who are already infected was much, much lower than the people who never had the disease to begin with. Basically, having a COVID-19 infection reduces the risk of reinfection between 83% and 99%, which is good news for our path towards herd immunity.

But as mentioned, those gains are fragile, and we have new variants that are circulating that could potentially elude that prior immunity.

IRA FLATOW: Can we get enough people vaccinated before we get a variant of the virus that’s completely resistant to the vaccine?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. That’s one of the things that’s adding a lot of urgency to the vaccination campaign. Yes, we do expect that these viruses will continue to mutate. And one of the best bets we have against mutations is to reduce the transmission and spread of the virus, not just with vaccination, but with all the conventional techniques we’ve been using, things like social distancing and wearing masks.

Researchers say that the best way to prevent mutation is to deny the virus opportunities to infect people and develop those mutations. So the fewer people that are infected, the lower the rate of mutation. So that is our best insurance is to basically be as aggressive as possible about controlling the spread of the virus, vaccinating as fast as we possibly can.

IRA FLATOW: In addition to what Dr. Fauci said yesterday, the Biden administration is signaling that it will be science advised and Earth oriented. Among his first acts as president, President Biden signed executive orders allowing the US to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and put the brakes on plans for the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, they had a really busy slate this week. Among the executive orders, a whole scale review of climate regulations throughout the government. The President, Trump’s administration, rolled back more than 100 different environmental regulations. And Biden basically said, looked at all those regulations, and start enhancing them whenever you can, in order to make greater gains against fighting climate change across government.

IRA FLATOW: He also elevated a scientist to a cabinet level position. That seems amazing.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. This means that science will be more central in the decision making throughout the government. This will be somebody who is going to be attending cabinet meetings, and also informing the president. The pick for this role is Eric Lander, who is a geneticist who worked on the Human Genome Project. And he is well renowned for working with very large scale projects, which means that he might be very suited towards working in government, where you have to deal with these large administrative issues.

But it’s a sign that the Biden administration wants to have this kind of information informing some of the decisions that it’s making throughout government– not just as it relates to science, but as it relates to policy domestically and abroad.

IRA FLATOW: I guess he could have picked a climate scientist for that position.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. But it’s not as though climate change and climate science are not being incorporated throughout the government. I mean, it seems like the administration is trying to include climate change in just about everything it’s doing. Not only did he bring back a lot of members of President Obama’s climate team, but he’s also brought in personnel that have a history of working on climate change and social justice issues, as they relate to the environment. And that means that this is something that’s going to be omnipresent in a lot of the decision making throughout this administration.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about how federal courts threw out one of former President Trump’s biggest climate change rollbacks. Tell us about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, see the EPA is actually required under the Clean Air Act to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And that decision was reached roughly at the beginning of the Obama administration. And so President Obama put forward this rule called the Clean Power Plan that would have drastically ramped down the greenhouse gas emissions produced by power plants.

The Trump administration, in its effort to undo everything Obama did, basically through that rule out. But because they’re required by law to regulate greenhouse gases, they had to come up with a replacement and the replacement. Was really tepid, and not just tepid.

Analysis showed that this was actually a rule that would lead to more air pollution and more climate pollution than doing nothing. Because the way it worked was that it encouraged fossil fuel power plants to be more energy efficient with the fuel that they used, which would have the effect of actually making burning fossil fuels more cost effective.

Now a federal court looked at the Trump administration’s rule and basically ruled this week that they did not fully read the law correctly, and that they should have used the whole suite of tactics that are available to them– not just increasing energy efficiency, but things like carbon trading, and also using things like clean energy and renewable energy to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And now that leaves President Biden pretty much a blank slate going forward.

IRA FLATOW: I want to end with a story that’s not so politically oriented, it is kind of cool in a Science Friday way. And I’m talking about some cool creature science this week involving the genome of the Australian lungfish. Why is that so important?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, this turns out to be the largest genome of any animal that we know to exist. This is 43 billion base pairs, 14 times larger than the human genome. And you know, a genome contains all the information that an organism needs to make copies of itself. But it’s just stunning to see such a vast library, such a vast archive of this information inside an organism.

Now very clearly, the size of a genome doesn’t really correlate to the complexity of an organism. But it does kind of illustrate just how this organism fits in with our understanding of evolution. I mean, looking at this, genome scientists were able to figure out that these lungfish, these are fish that breathe air rather than taking oxygen from the water through gills. They are actually more related to four legged land animals than they are to certain kinds of finned fish.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. You say the genome doesn’t reflect the complexity of the organism? You would think that if you had 43 million base pairs, you’d have a very complex organism.

UMAIR IRFAN: 43 billion base pairs.

IRA FLATOW: 43? Thank you. That’s another 1,000 times. Yeah.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, well, I mean, the thing is that genomes have a large section of non-coding regions. This is something– in the olden days, scientists used to call junk DNA. But more recently, they’ve been talking about this as non coding regions. Basically, just because it doesn’t code for proteins or have specific instructions doesn’t mean it doesn’t play an important role in regulating the functions of the organism.

Now having these large sections of genome might be just an artifact of just how old the species is. We have, in the fossil record, lungfish going back 400 million years. And for the most part, they look very similar to those ancient ancestors. And in that time period, it might be that they just accumulated a lot of excess information in their genome that just kept accumulating over time, from things like viral infections and mutations.

So that just might be an artifact of the fact that we’re looking at just a very old, ancient species.

IRA FLATOW: And speaking of old and ancient, I’m going to Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan, writer for Vox.

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