BOSTON: President Joe Biden on Monday invoked the national effort to land a man on the Moon 60 years ago in a speech touting his Cancer Moonshot initiative, which aims to slash cancer death rates across the United States by half.
The Democrat was in Boston for an address deliberately echoing John F. Kennedy's famous 1962 "Moonshot speech" in which he called for landing an American on the lunar surface - something achieved in 1969, after his assassination.
This time, Biden is pushing government-backed efforts to coordinate and fund treatment of cancer, search for cures and generally to prevent the disease through better public health.
Cancer remains the number two cause of death after heart disease and Biden said his Cancer Moonshot can halve death rates over the next 25 years.
"I know we can do this together, because I know this: there's nothing, nothing, nothing beyond our capacity or ability if we work together as the United States of America," he said.
Biden said that as in 1962, when the country was in the thick of the Cold War and domestic tensions were high over civil rights, the United States today is at an "inflection point."
And like Kennedy with his Moon program, Biden said he wanted to set "a national purpose that could rally the American people in a common cause."
Backing from JFK's daughter
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the assassinated JFK and now US ambassador to Australia, said her father had defied the doubters in the 1960s, when "scientists weren't sure even that a Moon landing on the surface of the Moon was possible."
Kennedy, however, "understood the power of the idea" and saw the project as a way to unite the country. "No one embodies that spirit more than President Joe Biden," she said. "As president, he has restored the soul of America."
The battle against cancer is personal for Biden: his son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 when Biden was vice president to Barack Obama.
Biden noted that cancer "does not discriminate..., it doesn't care if you're a Republican or Democrat."
"I give you my word as a Biden: this Cancer Moonshot is one of the reasons why I ran for president."
The linkage to the Moon program also sought to add to Democratic momentum ahead of November's midterm congressional elections where the Democrats face the possibility of a Republican sweep in Congress, severely complicating the last two years of Biden's first term.
Change the trajectory
Biden said his plan will push for cures and ways to manage cancer, turning "more cancers from death sentences into chronic diseases that people can live with."
"We know we can change the trajectory," he said.
The president said he was harnessing funding but also government expertise in high-tech research similar to the defense industry, where public-private partnerships drive innovations in weaponry and other military needs.
A new agency named Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and the White House's new "cancer cabinet" will "increase funding to break log jams and to speed breakthroughs," while getting entrepreneurs support from cutting edge scientists with NASA, the Pentagon and the energy department.
The goal is to "use all the assets we have," Biden said, and this "may require unusual partnerships."
Earlier, Biden signed an executive order meant to bolster the trailblazing US biotech sector's efforts to take on growing commercial rivals in China.
The order brings federal support for "areas that will define US biotechnology leadership and our economic competitiveness in the coming decades," a senior Biden administration official told reporters.
The official said that while US biotech research leads the world, the industrial applications are increasingly in the hands of other countries.
"Unless we translate biotechnology innovation into economic and societal benefits for all Americans, other countries, including and especially China, are aggressively investing in this sector," posing a "risk," the official said.
The White House says the US biotech industry is on the cutting edge of medical advances - recently seen in the rapid development of vaccines, tests and therapeutics to help manage the Covid-19 pandemic - but that the potential scope goes much further.
The official speaking to reporters cited studies suggesting that "before the end of the decade, engineering biology holds the potential to be used in manufacturing industry that accounts for more than one third of global output. That's equivalent to almost $30 trillion in terms of value."
Growing areas for biotech industry include new plastics and rubbers, jet fuel, and environmentally friendly fertilizers.