By Ken Stone and Chris Stone
Updated at 3:40 p.m. May 3, 2017
Former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night briefed a VIP audience in Carmel Valley on his private effort to build on the progress of President Obama’s “cancer moonshot.”
Saying the “only nonpartisan thing out there is the fight against cancer,” Biden told an invitation-only audience that he’ll raise “somewhere between” $10 million and $30 million to put together a “core staff” and facility for a Biden Cancer Initiative.
“I knew if Hillary had won, we’d continue” pushing the “moonshot” program — $1.8 billion for cancer research as part of the $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act signed in December.
But with that money in doubt amid Republican budget plans, Biden is putting his energies into a program that fosters a continued “sense of urgency.”
For 45 minutes, he spoke to hundreds on the first day of a two-day conference organized by Fortune magazine called Brainstorm HEALTH.
As vice president, he said, he won agreements from 10 nations to share cancer research, but he worried that nothing would come of those deals under the Trump administration.
“We can’t just let that sit there,” the 74-year-old former Delaware senator said. “And we have some outside groups that are going to be … watchdogs. … It’s basically the same initiative to change the [cancer-research] culture. And maintaining this urgency of now.”
“You’ve got to be able to do something to give some people some hope.”
He also parried a question about whether he’d take a 2020 shot at the White House.
Biden’s reply wandered from China as a hamstrung economic competitor to Lorain, Ohio, where he energized autoworkers on one of 83 stumping trips for Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t plan on running,” Biden told a patio audience at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar resort, “but everybody says because I won’t commit that I will not run under any circumstances that it must be that I’m running. I’m doing nothing to run. I really mean this.”
But Biden also said: “I’m disappointed to state the obvious. If you asked if I wished I were president [now] — yeah, I’d rather be president. But it was the right decision for me not to run” after his late son, Beau, was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Among more than 90 speakers at the conference are corporate and technology titans including Arianna Huffington, genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter and Google senior product manager Prem Ramaswami.
With the theme “Accelerating the Health Revolution,” conference session topics include workplace wellness, health-care outlook, Obamacare, precision health, genomic technology, multitasking, ebola, AIDS and living in a post-antibiotic world.
(One of the panels, “Moving Fast Amid the Flux,” featured USC medical professor Dr. David Agus speaking on “how to move forward — even before we know whether Obamacare or Trumpcare will be the law of the land.”)
Agus — author of several books including “The End of Illness” — introduced Biden as “my hero” and fed him open-ended questions.
Biden said in the next month he’ll announce a cancer fight that focuses on the same “basic things” the moonshot did — especially wide sharing of cancer-research data and “collaboration and cooperation” between drug companies and researchers.
“A layman like me can see there is so much that is just on the cusp of being able to be done,” he told dinner guests, who each paid $3,000 to attend the conference. “We can do a million billion calculations per second right now — if we can just aggregate enough data. It’s just crazy (the) stuff we’re not doing.”
Proposed by Obama in his January 2016 State of the Union, the cancer moonshot was a surprise to Biden, who was put in charge. But Biden said he went to every major cancer center in America and around the world to learn as much as he could.
“I was stunned at what wasn’t being done,” he said. “It wasn’t the lack of cooperation or sharing data. They weren’t doing A, B, C and D.”
He said that when President Richard Nixon in 1971 declared a War on Cancer, “he had no army. He had no tools. … He had nothing to work with.”
The only model for finding a cure then was that of Jonas Salk, whose work vanquished polio — “you know, one person in a laboratory was going to find it,” he said. But researchers didn’t have the ability, need or even inclination to share data.
“Well, 46 years later, we’ve made enormous progress in a whole range of areas,” Biden said. “And to joke a little bit: Y’all don’t play well in the sandbox. You don’t talk to one another very much.”
Now Biden takes credit for being good at convening, “and I have the ability to shame” people into action, he said to laughter and applause.
“You are among the most brilliant and dedicated people I’ve ever met in my life around the world — working your rear ends off,” he told the high-powered crowd. “But there is this notion that — kind of like [we’ll act] tomorrow. The idea of dealing with basic research is critical. [But] we’ve got to find some money for applied research.
Toward that end, he said he found a way to lessen the risk for drug companies by getting them to share research and profits.
“So now there are, I think, 17 drug companies” in collaboration deals, “and we’ve worked it so if there’s a breakthrough — you get 37 percent, you get 33 percent and I get the rest because we’ve worked out the value of what we’ve each put in,” he offered as an example.
“It’s a shortcut way for drug companies to move toward profitability on those items without taking risks that they took before.”
Agus, noting recent Marches for Science, asked Biden: “How are we going to get the next young generation excited to make a difference here?”
Young people are excited now, Biden said, but if brilliant minds see federal money drying up for research, they’ll say: “I’m not going in that direction.” The loss would be research into Alzheimer’s as well as cancer, he suggested.
Biden points to the current budget agreement — with none of the feared cuts — as evidence science spending will “dodge this bullet.”
“There is a point that comes, usually later than sooner, when the congressional party of the president works up the courage to challenge him,” Biden said. “Well, because of the polling numbers — I’m not making a judgment whether they are deserved or not — they are hitting rock bottom for the president. There’s an awful lot of guys looking for the lifeboat.”
He said many in the GOP are saying “no-no-no-no-no” to cuts in research the public considers crucial to its health and safety.
His former Republican colleagues “have decided that there are certain things that are just not negotiable,” he said. “They’re just not going to go along. And I think science, the EPA — the idea that we’re gutting [such agencies].”
Biden began to say, “C’mon for Chrissakes” but quickly switched to “for gosh sakes” amid laughter. “It’s just bizarre.”
In his long discussion on his presidential ambitions, he said: “I’ll be completely honest with you, and I’m not mincing words, I had planned on running for president before Beau was diagnosed. And look, this is the part that sounds awful — but it’s the truth — no woman or man should run for president unless they truly believe that they’re the best qualified person to do it.”
He thought he was, he said.
“I thought that the problems we’re facing at that moment were particularly susceptible to the few talents I have and were in my wheelhouse. I am enormously optimistic about the possibilities of this country.
He said: “My God — we are so well-positioned relative to the rest of the world to lead the 21st century. That’s not hyperbole. It’s just mind-blowing.”
He said he’s spent more time with Chinese President Xi Jinping “than any world leader. I spent 25 hours of private dinners with him. And [Obama] asked me how I would measure the man, and I told … him: He has the look of a man who’s about to take on the job that he knows is not going to end well.”
Biden contends China lacks energy and water.
“They’re talking about two $2 trillion projects to change the direction of the two major rivers to accommodate 40 percent of their population,” he said. “Thirty percent of their arable land is polluted with cadmium.”
Biden eventually returned to his 2016 decision not to run.
“I thought I was the best qualified person to run. And so I started off and I planned on running. And I honest to God thought I could win the nomination. And Hillary is incredibly talented. But I wasn’t running against Hillary. I was running for what I thought we should be doing.
“And I thought I could win a general election. The polling done throughout showed I could beat any Republican. And showed that I would, in a three-way race, be 8 points behind Hillary. But that’s not relevant anymore because what happened was life intervened. Reality has a way of intruding.”
Biden says son Beau, the Delaware attorney general who died in 2015 at age 46, “really wanted me to run.” So did his wife and daughter, who “thought it would also keep us together and give us purpose to continue to do things.”
But Biden said he couldn’t look the public in the eye and say: “I promise I will give you all of my attention, all of my effort.”
He said: “I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t have the strength to look at you and say, ‘I guarantee you that I can do that.’”
Biden retold the story of how he at first refused being Obama’s running mate, but took the question home to his family, including his 92-year-old mother. She reminded him of his efforts on behalf of blacks since childhood.
Finally, his mother, Jean, said: “The first [potential] African-American president in history told you he needs you to win Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and you told him what, honey?”
Biden accepted the vice-presidential slot and recalls telling Obama “a country will never be more optimistic than its president.”
He concluded his remarks Tuesday by likening his cancer efforts to President John F. Kennedy’s original moonshot.
“So, folks, there’s so much within our grasp,” he said. “And God willing it will be in the area of cancer. I think you’re going to see it has a transformative effect on how we think about ourselves — beyond the tens of thousands of lives that will be altered positively.
“When Kennedy announced the moonshot, everybody remembers all the things he talked about going to the moon. But the one line that sticks out in my mind from that speech is: ‘We are no longer ready to postpone.’
“We should be no longer ready to postpone,” Biden said to sustained applause.
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