Is there any sane, middle-ground thinking in America anymore? It’s getting harder to find. And yet I recently stumbled on some in a most unlikely place—a former convent on the outskirts of Washington D.C.
It’s a facility now known as Building 60 of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, which once housed the Sisters of the Visitation of Washington D.C. And it happens to be a favorite place of the director of NIH, Dr. Francis Collins, with whom I sat down with this week.
I was there mostly to ask Dr. Collins about the coronavirus of course as he and his team are on point right now when it comes to analyzing and combating the disease here in the U.S., as well as around the world. You may be pleased to hear that I found Collins’ thinking to be clear, dispassionate, unsensational and unbiased—and thereby greatly reassuring. Reassuring not so much for what he had to say—by no means does he think we’re out of the woods yet, particularly when it comes to China—but because listening to him you feel we have someone in a leadership position we can trust with no axe to grind.
Sadly, this is a rarity these days.
I’ll elaborate more on Dr Collins and just how unique his perspective is in a little bit, but first let me share his thinking about the coronavirus.
“At the present time, there is no reason for considerable anxiety in America, because we still have less than a dozen cases in our country,” Collins told me. “The concern, of course, is in China, where this is spreading very rapidly. It is impossible to say, however, exactly what the next few weeks will hold for America. We are doing rather extreme measures to try to isolate individuals who are coming from China and make sure that those who are already identified as infected are not infecting others. [It’s] really, really important over the next three or four weeks to see whether that holds up or not.”
The glass is both half full and half empty Collins told me: “The bad news is, this one spreads very rapidly. It's clearly transmitted from person to person, probably even when people aren't even symptomatic. The good news is its lethality seems to be a lot lower than SARS and MERS.”
Does he expect more cases here in the United States before the disease is contained? “I'd be very surprised if 11 is the total that we're going to have,” he said.
Here’s a small portion of my extensive interview with Collins from this week’s Influencers with Andy Serwer.
ANDY SERWER: Are you working on that vaccine right here in Bethesda?
Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS: We are. The vaccine research center—which is only 100 yards from here—[‘Yikes,’ I said to myself.] is a central part of developing that vaccine. It's a very high-tech approach where you're not actually growing the virus, you actually have information about it's RNA sequence, and from that, you make something that can be injected into a muscle. And the muscle will then make one of the viral proteins—not the whole thing, just a little piece of it—that the immune system will look at and go, oh, no, you don't—and make an antibody. It's very much in the forefront of what's possible. But we believe it will work in this situation, and it would be the fastest way that you can get to a vaccine at a time like this.
SERWER: It sounds like you're being briefed on it pretty regularly. Is that the case?
COLLINS: Well, as the director of the NIH, whenever there's something that emerges that is really an intensely important set of research questions, I'm in the middle of that. That's part of my job. Dr. Fauci [Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)] and I are probably communicating several times a day right now about exactly where we are and what we're doing.
SERWER: And how often do you brief the White House? Do they reach out to you and Dr. Fauci about the progress that you're making?
COLLINS: They do, indeed. Dr. Fauci is part of the White House team now that is assembled to look at coronavirus, chaired by Secretary [of Health and Human Services, Alez] Azar, who's my boss as well, and they're spending 24/7 looking at all the issues. The CDC is a big part of this. The Homeland Security people are trying to figure out exactly what's the best way to protect the American public.
The economic implications of the epidemic will be significant, to what degree though is unclear right now. Some economists estimate that it will take two full percentage points off of China’s GDP, and half a percentage point from the U.S. I asked Dr. Collins if when health care officials make decisions about, say, quarantining people or closing certain areas, they take the the economic impact of that into consideration.
Well, I don't have to make those decisions, but I have seen the people who do. And I think they do consider that at some level. But the first priority has to be human health. Are we going to actually make a decision that saves lives, or are we going to make a wrong decision in the name of trying to keep the economy going and actually hurt people or even cause loss of life? Loss of life, that's just not acceptable. If you have a choice, it seems you've got to do the thing that is going to protect people from a terrible disease. And I think that's what they're doing, admittedly with economic consequences.
Again, sound, logical thinking.
Here’s some more on Collins himself. He grew up home-schooled in Staunton, Virginia, went to UVA undergraduate, has a PhD in chemistry from Yale and an MD from UNC. He told me he wanted to be a trucker when he was a kid, and rides a motorcycle today. He was appointed by Barack Obama and now works for Donald Trump. Collins has been awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom (pre-Limbaugh.)
Collins describes himself as a “serious Christian,” but obviously is very much a scientist and in fact, sees no incompatibility between the two. He is no fan of intelligent design, and believes in evolution. While he is "intensely uncomfortable with abortion as a solution to anything" he says he would not advocate changing laws making abortion less accessible. Speaking about his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins said, "one can be intellectually in a rigorous position and argue that science and faith can be compatible.”
Right on Doc!
All of which is why when I hear Collins lay out his positions I listen pretty carefully.
—His take on the rise of anti-vaxxers?
“[It] deeply concerns me, and puzzles me. The whole eruption about whether the measles vaccine causes autism started on the basis of an entirely fraudulent publication which was admitted later to be fraudulent and has been retracted. ...we will see children—if something doesn't happen—die in this country of a preventable disease called measles. It's heartbreaking.
—As for gene-editing with tools like CRISPR, (used by a Chinese scientist who was recently sentenced to jail in that country), Collins has called for a five-year moratorium on the practice. “This is a really fundamentally important bioethical issue, probably the most significant one of our era. We have just in the last few years developed efficient ways to modify the DNA instruction book of human cells, even including an embryo. Are we ready to go there? Do we think that we have enough information about safety to be able to modify our own instruction book? Do you think that we're at the point where we know enough about what it means to be a human to start to change that? Are we stepping into territory that's philosophically and theologically fraught with all kinds of potential downsides? And furthermore, there's no medically-compelling reason that we need to do this right now for modifying embryos. Modifying the embryo—the germline, the heredity part of the genome, that is a profoundly significant line, and I do not think we're ready to cross it.”
—What about weed?
“It is disturbing, frankly, to see that marijuana has gone from being a substance that a lot of people were worried about in terms of its impact on human health to being rapidly embraced in many states as just something of recreational interest and maybe some medicinal value as well. We know so little about this. There's not a single instance of an absolutely clear-cut benefit of smoked marijuana for anything. And a lot of the problem is that every marijuana plant's a little different.”
I take comfort in knowing Francis Collins is fighting the coronavirus. I think I can trust him and that’s pretty damn important when it comes to something like this.
I wish there were more people in positions of power like Francis Collins. Individuals who can see both sides and find a middle ground that works for say Barack Obama, Donald Trump and for most of us Americans too.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on February 8, 2020. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.