As the results rolled in on the night of Super Tuesday, a buoyant Joe Biden addressed his supporters in Los Angeles. Among the many colorful remarks of that speech, the Democratic nominee reiterated his promise to cure cancer — alongside Alzheimer’s and diabetes.
This isn’t the first time Biden has made such a promise. Since his son Beau was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013, Joe Biden has committed himself to the fight against cancer. Though this commitment is laudable and very sympathetic, his methods are ultimately unrealistic. As a cancer researcher who has also lost a close family member to cancer, I feel compelled to stress the errors in his approach to the problem.
Promising the Moon
Following Beau Biden’s death in 2015, the Biden family reached out to billionaire Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong and Joe Biden put him in charge of the Cancer Moonshot expert panel to cure cancer in January 2016.
To secure funding for this program, Biden negotiated with the Republicans on the 21st Century Cures Act, which allowed Republicans to rollback FDA regulations on medical devices and gave the program $1.8 billion through 2023. It should be noted that both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren opposed this Act on the grounds of protecting consumers.
In 2017, it was revealed by a STAT investigation that Soon-Shiong was in fact using the Cancer Moonshot program to market his failing start-ups under the NantWorks umbrella. Soon-Shiong overhyped the clinical breakthroughs and made false claims about his research, while his wealth and social influence grew; he bought the LA Times and San Diego Tribune in 2018, and is today the richest doctor in the United States.
Interestingly, it turned out that even his philanthropic work was funneling money directly into one of his companies. Three years later, despite his promise to “transform the War on Cancer” by 2020, Soon-Shiong is still far from delivering any cure.
What’s more, Soon-Shiong is not without prior controversy. A 2015 whistleblower lawsuit alleged that NantHealth, Soon-Shiong’s flagship startup and his umbrella corporation NantWorks, were engaged in “a multitude of fraudulent activities” and broke health information privacy laws. In 2019, he was accused of buying out a drug that would have competed with the blockbuster cancer drug on which he built his entrepreneurial empire.
While he can’t be personally blamed for the ills of Soon-Shiong, it is nonetheless deeply concerning that Joe Biden chose to promote an individual who promised the moon, only to use public funds for private interests.
Biden has also consistently shown disregard for public programs across the board, be it social security or the funding for public health programs. Originally, his Cancer Moonshot program did not include any funding for public health prevention programs, even though it has been shown that such programs — including screening — are the most effective in tackling lung, cervical, colorectal, and gastric cancers, and reducing cancer mortality rates. It was only after a host of health experts wrote to Biden insisting on the crucial role of such programs that some grants for funding were made available.
Moreover, while the 21st Century Cures Act — promoted and voted for by Biden — promises to cut red tape so as to make novel treatments more readily available for cancer patients, it also includes a $3.5 billion cut to the Department of Human and Health Services’ Prevention and Public Health Fund.
Additionally, the 21st Century Cures Act allows pharmaceutical companies to promote off-label uses of existing products without clinical trials. While this provision may have been included with the NIH basket trials in mind, it also opens the door to greater risk. Off-label drug use has a history of causing adverse health effects, as seen in the case of Lupron, a sex hormone suppressor used to treat endometriosis in women and prostate cancer in men. The drug is causing an array of health problems in twenty-year-olds who received the drug during puberty.
Health for the Few
Who benefits from Joe Biden’s program? The inequality that exists in access to cancer screening and treatment within the United States and internationally cannot be solved through neoliberal approaches.
Let’s not forget, Joe Biden was a vocal proponent of the Iraq War and also voted in favor of invading Afghanistan. Today, US war veterans deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer higher rates of cancer due to likely exposure to chemicals in burn pits. Among Iraqis, contamination from depleted uranium munitions and other military-related pollution are causing higher rates of congenital defects and cancer, especially childhood leukemia, problems that will be passed down from one generation to another.
In the United States, Biden’s support for price gouging by Big Pharma should raise concerns about who will benefit from novel cancer treatments that might emerge from the Cancer Moonshot program. Biden vote to table the Wellstone Amendment in 2000, which would have reimposed the “reasonable pricing” rule, but now on the campaign trail, Biden has praised pharmaceutical companies and continues to receive contribution from Big Pharma and associated lobbyists.
Considering the exorbitant cost of cancer drugs in the United States, and the fact that these costs are associated with early mortality in cancer patients, it really bears asking whose cancers Biden is seeking to cure.
Down to Earth
Finding a cure for cancer is a mistaken premise to begin with; increasingly, clinicians and scientists are turning to prevention and management as the realistic options for this host of complex diseases.
As a cancer researcher, I have to point out that private-public partnerships in the biomedical field has given rise to the cancer-industrial complex, which puts the onus on the individual and ignores environmental causes, all the while upholding a reductionist approach to drug development that benefits corporations.
Biden, of course, does not support a fracking ban despite the scientific studies that correlate increased cancer rates with chemicals used for fracking and other related activities. Nor has he agreed to reimpose the ban on crude oil export, which Obama lifted and has resulted in a steady expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure across the United States, resulting in skyrocketing cancer rates in industrial areas, as exemplified by Louisiana’s notorious “cancer alley.”
If Joe Biden is serious about working toward a cure for cancer, he should confront the fact that his campaign is being bankrolled by the very industries whose profits are predicated on perpetuating the cancer-industrial complex. Without adopting bolder provisions in his health care and climate proposals, his promise to cure cancer can’t be taken seriously.