NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

‘We Follow the Science’

President Biden Pays NIH a Call

In lab are Graham, President Biden, Fauci, Zients, Corbett and Collins.
At NIH on Feb. 11 are (from l) VRC deputy director Dr. Barney Graham, President Joe Biden, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Covid Response Coordinator Jeff Zients, NIAID research fellow Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Curbing the coronavirus pandemic is President Joe Biden’s top priority. To stress the urgency, he stopped by NIH, source of a powerful weapon against Covid-19—biomedical research. 

On Feb. 11—after just more than 3 weeks in office—Biden toured the lab where the Moderna vaccine was co-developed by scientists at the Vaccine Research Center. While there, the President also was briefed on investigations into Covid therapeutics and diagnostics and other topics by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also is Biden’s chief medical advisor, and VRC director Dr. John Mascola. 

VRC deputy director Dr. Barney Graham, chief architect of the prototype pathogen preparedness strategy combined with the mRNA vaccinology approach of biotech partner Moderna, and research fellow Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, coronavirus team lead in NIAID’s Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, also talked with Biden.

“It’s incredible,” POTUS declared. “It’s a place where our top minds spend years researching vaccines and treatments for all kinds of viruses and, partnering with academia and industry, prepare for the next one—because there will be others. HIV, SARS, West Nile, Zika, Ebola and, today, Covid-19. To all of you, your work made possible the remarkably rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccines we have today…People were initially talking years, if not decades before we’d have a vaccine. On behalf of a grateful nation—and I don’t say that lightly—I want to thank you and your families for your work and your sacrifice. For there’s no doubt your families sacrificed a great deal for the endless hours you put in to save the rest of us.” 

‘We Give Back’

Taking the stage at the Natcher Bldg., Biden praised Collins and Fauci for agreeing to stay in their positions as the new administration assumed office.

“Our nation is fortunate to have both of you in these critical roles and that goes for all the world-class doctors, scientists and researchers working at NIH,” said the 46th Commander-in-Chief, who acknowledged Covid’s toll. “I know it hasn’t been easy. The devastation of this pandemic, the loss of life and livelihoods, hasn’t spared the scientific community. Labs closed. Research delayed. Careers disrupted—especially for those in training. Yet for every moment of despair in this past year, you and all the heroes and heroines on the frontlines and at the frontiers of this pandemic remind us who we are. We are Americans. We never give up. We never give in. We give back. We follow the science and find the answers.”

Flanked by Collins (l) and Fauci (r) on stage, Biden speaks from podium.
Flanked by Collins (l) and Fauci (r) on stage in Kirschstein Auditorium, the nation’s Commander-in-Chief addresses the NIH workforce.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

In addition to thanking the scientific enterprise, the President also came to NIH to cite progress in his national strategy to fight Covid-19 and to discuss the American Rescue Plan, which bolsters economic recovery. 

Besides getting 100 million people vaccinated in his first 100 days in office—a goal also announced at NIH 2 weeks previously by Vice President Kamala Harris—Biden’s strategy addresses nationwide shortages of vaccine and vaccinators. 

Already the administration has “increased the weekly supply of vaccine shipped to the states by almost 30 percent,” Biden reported. Just that afternoon, his team had negotiated with two major pharmaceutical manufacturers, Moderna and Pfizer, to supply 100 million more doses each of their vaccines. They were also able to accelerate the delivery timeline by a month. By July, he intends to have enough vaccine to immunize 300 million Americans.

“Within 3 weeks [through] round-the-clock work with so many people, we’ve now purchased enough vaccine supply to vaccinate all Americans,” said the President. “Now we’re working to get those vaccines into the arms of millions of people.”

‘Administering a Dose of Hope’

One thousand more federal staff have been deployed to vaccination sites around the country, he noted. 

Behind presidential seal, Biden speaks from podium.
Biden thanks NIH’ers for their example during the pandemic.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

On Super Bowl Sunday, the National Football League invited the Biden administration to use all 30 stadiums as mass vaccination stations. Biden accepted the offer, and the federally run centers will target areas that have been hardest hit by the illness. 

Recalling the words of a nurse involved in giving the vaccine shot, POTUS said the vaccinator described the experience as “‘administering a dose of hope’…We’re going to get those doses of hope out at new and large-scale vaccination centers set up by the federal government.”

Retired doctors and nurses, including some from FEMA, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Commissioned Corps, are being recruited back to work as vaccinators.

“Our end goal is beating Covid-19,” Biden declared. ”That brings us to the challenge that remains: We remain in the teeth of this pandemic. January 2021 was the deadliest month we’ve had—we lost over 100,000 of our fellow citizens.”

Mask Up, It’s Patriotic

Ending his visit, Biden said all citizens can help get the nation through this crisis.

“Masking remains the easiest thing to do to save lives,” he said. “Everyone needs to mask up. I know it’s a pain in the neck. It’s a patriotic responsibility…Mask up, America. Mask up.”

Biden noted that NIH and the broader “scientific community repurposed labs to work on Covid-19, developed therapeutics, new diagnostic technologies and vaccines in record time. You’re highlighting lessons learned on the importance of pandemic preparedness, public-private partnerships, real-time data-sharing and most of all, speed and efficiency without compromising science and good conscience.” 

Science has modeled the example for everyone else, Biden concluded.

“You’re a good group of people—I’ve been out here many times, trying to help my son who passed away with cancer…We have to do what you all do here at NIH and across the scientific community. We have to keep the faith—with purpose, with vision and with every dose of hope we have…You’re the best America has to offer, NIH. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” 

‘He Listened…He Cared’

In Lab Tour, Biden Connects with Scientists

Graham and President Biden bump elbows.
Dr. Barney Graham and President Biden bump elbows.

Photo:  Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

When President Biden visited the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIH on Feb. 11, VRC deputy director Dr. Barney Graham and research fellow Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett described various aspects of vaccine development science.

“I showed a 3C model of the whole virus to show how the spike molecule was on the virus surface,” Graham recounted. “I then showed a 10 million X-enlarged 3D model of the spike protein. I had other models of the prefusion and postfusion forms of RSV F and some of our new nanoparticle designs for influenza, but didn’t have time for those.”

Corbett talked about how her group decided on the protein sequence for making the spike protein in different forms for assay development, cryoelectron microscopy, probes for antibody discovery and vaccine. 

“[We] designed the vaccine insert sequence [over a weekend],” Corbett recalled.

In response to the science blitz and research briefing, Biden inquired about how the investigators themselves were coping.

“He was interested in our personal experience and our families’ experience of going through this pandemic response over the last year,” Graham noted. “He listened and he cared. At the end of the lab tour I mentioned that my wife (Dr. Cynthia Turner-Graham) and grandson (D.J.) both asked me to say hello from them. [The President] pulled out his cell phone and asked for my wife’s number, then called her and proceeded to have a 5- to 10-minute call with her while everyone else waited.” 

Corbett points to computer display as POTUS looks on.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett talks vaccine science with POTUS.

Photo:  Credit Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

This is the second meeting with a U.S. President in less than a year for Graham and Corbett. They met with President Trump on Mar. 3, 2020. Graham’s work has placed him in this position several times over the last couple of decades.

“I had the opportunity to meet with President Obama in December 2014, when he came to thank us for our work on Ebola during the West African outbreak,” Graham recalled. He also met with President Bush who visited in 2003 to learn about VRC work post-9/11. 

What stood out for Corbett was “POTUS ad hoc calling Dr. Graham’s wife for casual conversation and gifting us with the POTUS challenge coin.”

“I never imagined meeting an active president as a research fellow,” she said.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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