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Joe Biden on His New Cancer Initiative, Drug Prices, and Donald Trump

May 03, 2017

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday detailed his new initiative to combat cancer during a frank, wide-ranging keynote at Fortune's second annual Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego that also touched on hot button issues like high drug prices, funding for biomedical research, and President Donald Trump.

The former VP's main thesis about what's holding back cures? Information-hoarding and a general unwillingness to share among private and public institutions alike—all of whom ostensibly have the same goal of beating cancer.

"I was stunned at what wasn't being done. The lack of cooperation, the lack of sharing data. That's how it all started," he said. "You all don't play well in the sandbox," he added, addressing a crowd filled with biopharmaceutical executives, investors, and scientists.

Biden has had a very personal brush with the scourge. His son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, died of advanced brain cancer in 2015 before the age of 50—an experience Biden said tore away at his "soul" and led him to abandon a planned presidential run.

Since then, Biden has embarked on a number of ambitious cancer-fighting projects focused on getting fractious American health care factions to pool their talents, with the goal of producing new treatments that may give parents like him at least a little more time with their loved ones. Former President Barack Obama appointed him to lead the White House Cancer Moonshot Taskforce—an effort Biden says Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton had asked him to continue had she won the 2016 presidential election.

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While Biden praised the remarkable advances in cancer treatments made over the past several years (including a shoutout to the red-hot field of immunotherapy, which involves using the body's immune system to fight cancer), he said that his efforts going forward will continue to focus on the basic barriers to cures, such as "sharing data and breaking down silos." And he believes he's especially equipped to take on pharmaceutical companies and other entrenched interests given his decades of experience in diplomacy and public service.

"I don't have any dog in the fight... I'm not in this particular group or that particular group. And I have the ability to shame," he said.

Inevitably, the discussion turned to the political realities of the Trump administration's efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act—as well as to slash funding for biomedical research through massive proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On the latter, Biden said that the GOP-led Congress' recent decision to buck the White House and actually boost NIH funding by $2 billion showed that even intense political polarization can't easily stifle those who believe in scientific values and the government's prerogative to, at some level, protect its citizens' health. That's also an effect of widespread public outrage against the administration's science-related policies, which helped catalyze the recent March for Science, he asserted.

"The public has moved ahead of the administration [on science]," said Biden.

Biden was interviewed by renowned physician Dr. David Agus, who is also joining the board of the Biden Cancer Initiative. Agus also asked the former Vice President to touch on one of the most controversial issues dogging drug makers: the skyrocketing cost of medications and drug price hikes.

Biden said gigantic price increases with zero product improvement are "absolutely immoral," referring to the scandal over Mylan's Epipen as a prime example. He's currently engaged in conversations with a slew of biopharma companies to shift the drug pricing dynamic.

As for the million-dollar question—would you still consider a presidential run?—Biden repeated that he had no such plans. Rather, he wants to use his influence to shift the contours of cancer research. And his inspiration comes from a former President gunned down in his prime.

"We are no longer ready to postpone. We should no longer be ready to postpone," said Biden, quoting John F. Kennedy.

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