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The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Biden just lost his cancer moonshot chief

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Good Tuesday morning, and thanks for reading The Health 202. You know it's cold when Winter Olympians are using hand and toe warmers. Send warm thoughts and tips to rachel.roubein@washpost.com.

Below: A slew of Democratic governors are dropping mask mandates in schools, and House Democrats unveiled a stopgap bill to fund the government. But first: 

Eric Lander kept landing top health assignments – until his bullying was made public

Eric Lander, the White House’s top science adviser, resigned last night after an internal review found credible evidence that he’d bullied staff.

The internal investigation reportedly concluded in December, but Lander resigned only after that investigation became public in a story Politico published Monday. In the interim, Lander continued to get prime assignments. 

At a splashy White House event Wednesday, Biden pointed to Lander and charged him with reigniting the “cancer moonshot.” And this morning, Lander had been set to testify before Congress on Biden’s proposal to create a new research agency to propel breakthrough medical treatments for devastating diseases. Chief of staff Ron Klain recently touted Lander’s “scientific wherewithal and knowledge" in a New York Times podcast aired Jan. 21. 

In a resignation letter to Biden last night, Lander acknowledged mistreating his subordinates. He apologized for demeaning them — behavior that put him at odds with Biden’s pledge to run an administration marked by respect and professionalism, our colleague Tyler Pager writes. 

Lander’s departure comes less than 18 hours after Politico reported on audio of a January meeting about the White House internal review that concluded Lander — the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy — had violated the White House’s “safe and respectful workplace policy.” 

  • Throughout Monday, the White House struggled to explain why Lander hadn’t quit or been fired earlier.
  • “I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them,” Lander wrote in the Monday night letter obtained by Tyler. “It is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.”

The Post's Ashley Parker

What's next

Lander’s resignation means Biden will need another science adviser, a process that could take months given the position requires Senate confirmation. It also means that now, several science-focused agencies or initiatives are without permanent leadership.

  • For instance: Robert Califf’s nomination to lead the Food and Drug Administration has become imperiled by hot-button issues, leading top Biden aides to rev up support for the nominee.
  • And the White House hasn’t named a pick to replace Francis Collins, the longtime leader of the National Institutes of Health who stepped down late last year.

Lander was spearheading two scientific initiatives important to Biden. 

The first: A proposal to speed up research for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other life-threatening illnesses. Over the summer, Lander helped craft a vision for a new, $6.5 billion venture — known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. And he was set to expound on that vision before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee today. 

The second: A reboot of the cancer moonshot, an effort Biden led as vice president after his son, Beau, died of the disease in 2015. Last week, the administration announced a plan to cut the death rate from cancer in half over the next 25 years.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee:

Pressure cooker

Backlash to Lander quickly ensued throughout Monday. 

Republicans — like Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — suggested Biden was acting hypocritically by not firing him, Tyler reports. 

The top Democrat and Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent a letter to Biden requesting a copy of the internal investigation and next steps to improve the office’s workplace environment. 

This wasn’t the first time Lander — an influential scientist who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” at the age of 30 — drew criticism for his behavior. During his confirmation process, some in the science community raised concerns about his treatment of other scientists, particularly women and people of color.

On Monday, some cancer advocates raised alarm about what Lander’s absence would mean for the reinvigorated moonshot initiative. But others appeared to view his resignation as a reset, of sorts.

  • “We’re really happy that there is a scientific adviser role in the Cabinet,” Emily Pinckney, the executive director of 500 Women Scientists, told our colleagues. “There is always a long list of folks to choose from and we feel it was a misstep to choose Lander. It’s not because his work isn’t good, but because he is known for being a bully.”

State scan

Some Democratic states start lifting mask mandates

Mask mandates will soon fall in more Democratic states, a major signal of the nationwide shift away from coronavirus restrictions as case numbers dip and calls for a “return to normalcy” grow. 

Mandatory masks in schools: The Democratic governors of New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware announced Monday that their states will no longer require masks to be worn in schools in the coming weeks, The Post’s Laura Meckler and Paulina Firozi report. Once the new rules take effect, local school districts would likely be responsible for deciding whether students and faculty will be allowed to go without a mask in the classroom. 

Meanwhile, out West: 

Oregon’s health officials issued a similar announcement, but said that in addition to dropping its statewide mask order for schools, it would forgo an indoor mask mandate altogether no later than the end of March. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that his state’s indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people will expire Feb. 15, but will still require face coverings for those who are unvaccinated. Masking in schools will continue, though the governor’s office is working to update masking guidelines, The Post reports.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D):

On the Hill

Democrats unveil stopgap spending bill to stave off government shutdown

The House Appropriations Committee introduced a short-term measure to keep the government running past Feb. 18 — a move that buys negotiators more time to haggle over a larger budget deal for fiscal year 2022.

Congressional approval of the bill is expected in the coming days and would extend last year’s spending levels through March 11. At which time, Democrats and Republicans hope to present a more expansive package.

If passed, the third government stopgap bill for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, would sustain federal dollars for important safety net programs like Medicaid for U.S. territories and extend a temporary designation of fentanyl as a controlled substance. 

  • We are close to reaching a framework government funding agreement,” committee chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement about the bipartisan effort to create this year’s budget. “But we will need additional time to complete the legislation in full.”

In other health news

  • On the move: Ilse Zuniga is headed to HHS to serve as a press secretary, she confirmed to The Post. Zuniga, who previously worked for Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), starts her new role Feb. 14, our colleague Dan Diamond reports.
  • Some pharmacists are being paid a dispensing fee of just $1 per prescription for covid-19 antiviral pill— a profit they say doesn’t cover the time and expense of stocking the drug, which could limit its availability, Axios reports.
  • Cleaning up the numbers: Health officials and hospitals are working to improve the country’s covid-19 data reporting — an effort to separate the numbers of those who came to the facility because they have the virus and those who came in for another reason but tested positive, Politico's Erin Banco reports.

The latest reports

Out this morning: New report on synthetic opioids. The Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking released five-pronged recommendations on ways to curb the potent drug, which comprises a large share of the nation’s overdose deaths.

The commission is comprised of members of Congress, executive branch departments and experts. Recommendations including elevating the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to a Cabinet-level position; disrupting drug supply through targeted oversight; and improving surveillance and data analysis.

Congress may need to increase funding and pass legislation to bolster some of these proposed efforts — which could be tough in the lead up to the midterms. 

But could lawmakers come together and pass a bipartisan bill? “I think it’s damn realistic and has to happen,” Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), a co-chair of the commission, told The Health 202.

ICYMI

‘Where’s Vincent?’: U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou will not participate in the men’s singles competition at the Beijing Olympics, set to begin Tuesday, after testing positive for the coronavirus, The Post’s Les Carpenter reports. 

  • “It’s pretty unreal that of all the people, it would happen to myself,” Zhou said during an emotional five-minute video he posted. “And that’s not just because I’m still processing this turn of events but also because I have been doing everything in my power to stay free of covid since the start of the pandemic.”

Federal tests delivered: Coronavirus tests shipped in freezing temperatures are still usable, though the FDA advises people to allow the at-home tests to reach room temperature before use, per our colleague Meryl Kornfield.

Concerns about the viability of the free rapid coronavirus tests from the Biden administration began to arise after many were delivered to doorsteps recently blanketed in snow and ice across the country.

Coronavirus

Stacey Abrams photo prompts a fresh round of hypocrisy charges

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is at the center of the latest coronavirus-related firestorm, after she posted a photo of herself sitting with a group of elementary school students who were all masked; Abrams was not. 

Rep. Barry Moore (R-Alabama):

In a statement her campaign posted to Instagram, Abrams called the criticism a “pathetic, transparent and silly attack” that was “pitiful and predictable.” “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Abrams was wearing a mask but removed it before she began to speak and for the photos. Abrams has since deleted her social media posts with the photo,” Amy B. Wang reports.

Sugar rush

Read more about the Christian crowdfunding site attracting Canadian protesters here

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.

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