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Biden Puts Biomedical Research at the Heart of His ‘Unity’ Plan

Read the article at Bloomberg Law.

President Joe Biden’s spotlight on his cancer moonshot and a proposed new research entity in the State of the Union address Tuesday signals the White House’s reliance on biomedical innovation as a vehicle to advance bipartisan initiatives through Congress.

Lawmakers told Bloomberg Government on Wednesday they’re hoping to fund a new medical research agency as part of a forthcoming FY 2022 spending bill, which must pass by March 11.

Biden ended his speech by outlining a new “unity” agenda with a heavy emphasis on health policies. It included ending the opioid epidemic, access to mental health care, improving the health of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during deployment, and the re-ignition of the cancer moonshot to end cancer as we know it.

“Given all the other things that are going on the world, starting with the Ukraine, I was just so pleased to hear the emphasis that the president placed on improving health, and assuring research and development across the board,” Research!America President Mary Woolley said Wednesday.

Biden said the success of the cancer moonshot will involve Congress agreeing, on a bipartisan basis, to fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, a new entity that aims to speed up cutting-edge biomedical discoveries.

“I call on Congress to fund ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health,” Biden said. “It’s based on DARPA—the Defense Department project that led to the Internet, GPS, and so much more. ARPA-H will have a singular purpose—to drive breakthroughs in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and more. A unity agenda for the nation.”

The priority on health-related items in the unity agenda followed mentions of pandemic preparedness and the scientific success of Covid-19 vaccines as well as a call for making federal investment in research and development a larger part of the U.S. gross domestic product.

“The fact that this was the climactic piece, the unity agenda for America, is non-trivial,” Woolley said.

Lawmakers Ready

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Democrat and Republican on the health spending panel, both told Bloomberg Government on Wednesday they’re pushing to get money and authorization for ARPA-H soon, possibly in an upcoming omnibus appropriations bill.

“We’ll just see here in the next few days how much we can put together,” Blunt said Wednesday. But he noted that the Senate Appropriations Committee’s ability to put ARPA-H money into FY 2022 spending bills may depend on the whether language to authorize ARPA-H can be attached.

“There’s no authorizing bill out yet. Frankly, they got about a year behind. They should’ve been doing this last March,” he said.

Murray, who also chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said the authorizing language for ARPA-H will have to come through another bill and there are options for where it can go. “We’ll have to go do that later,” she said, without elaborating.

There’s only been one hearing on ARPA-H to date, and even that was tainted with distraction. The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee convened the Feb. 8 hearing the morning after key witness Eric Lander resigned from his post as White House science adviser and didn’t show up to testify.

There is momentum, however. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo). said last month that she and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have ironed out differences with Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) about how to establish ARPA-H, indicating there’s a path forward to clear the full committee.

Eshoo is the author of the authorizing bill (H.R. 5585) for ARPA-H. DeGette and Upton are the architects of Cures 2.0 (H.R. 6000), the follow up bill to the 2016 21st Century Cures Act, which also included language to authorize ARPA-H.

Meanwhile, Murray and HELP Committee ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) say they may fold ARPA-H authorizing language into their pandemic preparedness bill. They released a draft version in late January.

Burr said Wednesday a full committee markup of that bill could happen in the next two weeks.

Always Bipartisan

“It feels like there continues to be momentum around ARPA-H,” Tannaz Rasouli, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, said Wednesday. “The president has made it clear that it continues to be a priority for him.”

It’s fitting that the president is characterizing the cancer moonshot goal of ending cancer as we know it as part of his unity agenda, Rasouli said. “The progress we’ve made up to this point is a direct result of longstanding bipartisan support for [the National Institutes of Health] over many years, and that’s what it’ll take to continue moving us forward.”

Medical research has generally received broad bipartisan support, but Woolley said continuous funding increases can’t be taken for granted.

The U.S. has always been a leader in finding new cures and treatments, “but that doesn’t happen by itself. It has to be said out loud, an underscored objective that we’re going to meet.”

Biden’s speech “doubles down on that focus,” she said.