The visit was his second to NIH as President. In September 2009, during his first term, Obama came here to announce American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. Since then, he has continued to back up his interest in and commitment to scientific research with various funding mechanisms to benefit NIH.
“It’s wonderful to be back in America’s laboratory, even if I don’t always understand what you’re doing,” Obama joked, humorously reminding the audience that NIH director Dr. Francis Collins had promoted him to “scientist-in-chief” during that 2009 visit.
The President thanked NIH and its partners for developing a candidate Ebola vaccine, which had just completed phase I clinical trials the previous week. “No potential Ebola vaccine has ever made it this far,” Obama pointed out.
The President also noted other progress in the epidemic. “A few months ago, only 13 states could test for Ebola,” he said. “Today 36 states can. Previously, there were only 3 facilities in the country deemed capable of treating an Ebola patient, including NIH. Today, we’re announcing that we now have 35” designated treatment centers.
In addition to praising the work of NIH, Obama used the occasion to ask Congress for more Ebola-effort funds and more funds for scientific research in general, so the U.S. can be prepared for the next global health challenge.
Recalling the world’s sense of urgency last summer as Ebola spread, he acknowledged that NIH’ers are and have been involved in all aspects of containing the epidemic, from volunteering and deploying to West Africa to help care for Ebola patients and health care workers infected in the line of duty, to serving in medical labs testing for Ebola, not to mention successfully treating Texas nurse Nina Pham, one of the first people who contracted the disease in the U.S.
“You reminded the world that it is possible to treat Ebola patients effectively and safely without endangering yourselves or others,” Obama noted. “One of the great virtues of what you’ve done here at NIH is reminded people that science matters and that science works. It’s not always going to be immediate…there are going to be some trials and there are going to be some errors and false starts and blind alleys, but the basic concept of science—and making judgments on the basis of evidence—that’s what’s most needed during difficult, challenging moments like the ones that we had this summer and that we continue to have in West Africa.”
The President warned that although the country has so far managed to avoid the most alarming infectious disease scenarios—with SARS, H1N1 and now Ebola—there will probably come a time when the nation is confronted with a deadly airborne disease.
Visiting NIH last month, President Obama made Dr. Nancy Sullivan’s lab in the Vaccine Research Center his first stop. Accompanying him were NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
Afterwards, the President addressed a Masur Auditorium crowd.
Photos: Bill Branson, Ernie Branson
“To deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure—not just here at home, but globally—that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly,” he said. “And it also requires us to continue the same path of basic research that is being done here at NIH.”
At the mention of “basic research,” the Masur crowd erupted in its most enthusiastic applause.
Besides the emergency funding request for the Ebola effort, Obama also urged constant, renewed dollars put into research for problems as yet unseen and unknown.
“That’s part of how science works—you make investments and you pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, in part because it turns out that knowledge may turn out useful later and you don’t always know when,” he said. “As you move ahead on all these fronts, I want you to know you have your President’s full support and the administration’s full support.”
Ending his talk, Obama related something another Ebola survivor—Christian missionary Nancy Writebol—told him about the two different types of reactions she encounters among people, in her recovery.
“Some people wrap their arms around you,” she told the President. “Some people stand 10 feet away.”
“This disease is not just a test of our health systems,” Obama said. “It is a test of our character as a nation. It asks us who we are as Americans. When we see a problem in the world—like thousands of people dying from a disease that we know how to fight—do we stand 10 feet away, or 10,000 miles away, or do we lead and deploy and go to help? I know what kind of character I want to see in America. I know the kind of character that’s displayed by people here at NIH and some of your colleagues deployed right now in Liberia. That’s who we are. We don’t give in to fears. We are guided by our hopes and we are guided by our reason, and we are guided by our faith and we’re guided by our confidence that we can ease suffering and make a difference. And we imagine new treatments and cures, and we discover, and we invent, and we innovate and we test and we unlock new possibilities.
“And when we save a life and we help a person heal,” he concluded, “we go up to them and we open our arms, and we wrap our arms around them with understanding and love and compassion and reason. That’s what you do here at NIH. It’s what we do as Americans. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ll always be.”
16 Years in the Making
Ebola Vaccine Researcher Recalls
‘Logical March Forward’
Before a jovial President Obama took Masur Auditorium’s stage to talk to a house full of NIH employees and several patients who greeted him like a rock star, he dropped by Bldg. 40—NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center—to meet some of the scientists behind Ebola vaccine research and see some of their work firsthand.
Dr. Nancy Sullivan, chief of the VRC’s biodefense research section, has been working on an Ebola vaccine for nearly 2 decades, dating back to when she was an investigator at the University of Michigan with then-NIH grantee and now former VRC director Dr. Gary Nabel.
Obama, accompanied by HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, made Sullivan’s lab his first stop.
“The President was actually very well-informed about how vaccines work,” she said. “He was very engaged and interested. In fact, he asked some insightful questions, some that not even other scientists have asked us.”
The concept for Sullivan’s vaccine is 16 years in the making, beginning back when few people outside the global infectious disease community had even heard of the deadly virus. Over the years, Sullivan and her team continued to tweak her idea, constantly improving on it. Eventually she followed Nabel to NIH in 1999, before the VRC was even built. Many in the vaccine research community had begun to believe Ebola was insurmountable. It was just too aggressive for a vaccine to ever protect against it. Did Sullivan ever lose heart that her work may never prove successful?
|President Obama takes keen interest in Sullivan’s research.
“No, I never did,” she said. “The vaccine was always on a logical march forward. And we always had the support of NIAID.”
When Sullivan’s vaccine went to the phase I clinical trial stage last fall, it was indeed a proud and historic occasion for several reasons: The first Ebola vaccine to be tested in humans was developed by a woman; principal investigator Dr. Julie Ledgerwood of the VRC clinical trials section led the study; Mary Enama, VRC protocol operations manager, coordinated development of the trial; Laura Novik was the study coordinator; and a woman was the first volunteer to receive the vaccine.
“That wasn’t planned,” Sullivan said, “but it’s kind of remarkable.”
NIAID immunotechnology chief Dr. Mario Roederer collaborates with Sullivan to analyze immune responses in potential vaccine candidates. At first, he didn’t know who was going to be on the upcoming VIP tour. He was summoned from an out-of-town meeting to give a preview of his lab to an advance team. When he learned the advance team was actually the Secret Service, he realized he’d soon be giving the President of the United States a demo of the world’s most sophisticated flow cytometry operation. Timing was tricky, though. Roederer had to take a red-eye flight from another meeting in Seattle to be back in Bethesda in time to show Obama around.
“I just supply the toys and technology,” Roederer said. “Nancy does everything else.”
In fact, in his speech in Masur later, the President referred humorously to what he saw on tour, joking that he’s “been tinkering around the White House, setting up a similar system...We use it for brewing beer.
“I have to say both Nancy and Mario were really good teachers and were very patient with my rudimentary questions,” quipped Obama. “And the lasers were really cool.”
“Our flow cytometers are equipped with multiple lasers to illuminate the cells, which we’ve tagged with fluorescent labels,” Roederer explained. Presenting his research to VIPs was not new for him. He came to NIH from Stanford in 2000 and has given similar flow cytometry primers over the years to President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney as well as several other high-level visitors to NIH.
“I’d been hoping President Obama would come to our lab for a while now,” said Roederer. His one-on-one with the President played out differently than his colleague’s: Alone on the 5th floor that Secret Service had completely cleared of his coworkers, Roederer met Obama without press corps cameras.
Echoing Sullivan’s impression of the “scientist-in-chief,” Roederer said, “He was incredibly engaging. He interrupted me several times to ask questions, really good questions. You could tell he was sincerely interested in what we’re doing here.”
Both NIH labs made the White House’s weekly highlight reel, West Wing Week, which aptly named the clip “Multiparameter Flow Cytometer Show.” Watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL2l295Awxk.